Stories from the border tug at the heart
July 10, 2019 • For immediate release
Sister Norma Pimentel says she is “a U.S. citizen by chance.” She grew up “between the borders,” crossing back and forth between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros in Mexico, with family on both sides. She was born in Texas, where her parents were waiting for an answer to their request for residency.
Since 2008, Sister Pimentel has directed the work of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, for the Diocese of Brownsville. She is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a religious order founded in Spain whose members are taking care of the thousands of families crossing the border into the United States.
Sister Pimentel gave a keynote address at the Assembly of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, June 25, in St. Louis. She made quite an impact on the hearts -- and the purse strings -- of her audience.
Following her address, Rev. Kevin Clinton, AUSCP Leadership Team Chair, asked the 260 assembly participants for contributions -- promising that the association would match the individual gifts to Sister Pimentel’s ministry. Individual gifts totaled $13,077, doubled by the AUSCP for a total of more than $26,000.
Part of Sister Pimentel’s responsibility is the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, which has helped over 150,000 people since it opened in 2014. More than half are children under 10. In early June, she reported, the center was seeing 900 to a thousand people a day.
At the respite center, some families arrive with their children, others have been joyfully reunited.
But Sister Pimentel described an experience she had at a detention center for unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico. The experience remains “like a dagger in my heart,” she said. There, children were packed in cells, with no showers, and not even enough room to sit or lie down.
“I saw these kids looking thru these glass windows, all these little faces, just staring, full of tears, looking at you like, ‘Please help me.’”
At first she was forbidden to enter the cell, but when she said she wanted to pray, she was allowed inside.
“It was the most difficult thing that I have ever lived in my life, to see those kids all around me. . . . close to a hundred kids in that cell, all crying, all looking at me with tears in the face, pulling my dress and saying, ‘Please get me out of here.’” But she said there was nothing she could do, because of the policy put in place by people who were not thinking about reuniting the families that are being separated.
“Our country is suffering from a grave humanitarian problem,” she said. The policy of separating families is heartless and put in place by people who didn’t care about the pain and suffering it was going to cost.”
“We all have a responsibility to do something about that . . . to help people . . . to do away with indifference, as if it is okay to discard people because they are different than us,” she said. “So people are sufferng, and we are silent.”
She said it seems we live in a culture of comfort. “It’s almost like we live in a bubble, where people protect themselves from not feeling uncomfortable. . . . . So I say that I go around popping bubbles, so they can see things for what they are.”
She quoted Pope Francis and his call for leaders “to smell like the sheep.” In the Rio Grande Valley, there are “a lot of men and women who have walked for weeks and months, and when they take their shoes off . . . I give thanks to God for being part of that smell.”
When she greets a new arrival at the respite center with a welcome smile, “there are tears of joy that somebody took recognition of them as a person. And after a shower and something to eat, that person becomes transformed. God becomes present to both of us.”
The problem is not at the border, but in the countries where families face repression and violence and fear that their children will be killed or recruited into gangs. “If we really wanted solutions we can find them.”
She concluded her address with a plea. “As leaders today, we must allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and to do more. True leadership unfolds by accompanying others who are suffering.”
Earlier, she had recounted buying a photocopier from a woman who told her she “disagreed 100 percent with what she was doing, helping illegal immigrants.” Sister Pimentel invited her to see what she was doing, and after that experience, “she said she was 100 percent in agreement with what she was doing.”
She described other stories of transformation. One was a non-Catholic lawyer voiunteer who decided to become a priest. Another was a man who volunteered for hours after his own full time job, who said he was “more tired, but happy.”
“All you have to do is come and see,” she told the assembly. “What would be your response? What is God telling you to do?
Photo attached / Credit Cindy Halluin, AUSCP
Contact Rev. Bernard “Bob” Bonnot, firstname.lastname@example.org, (330) 397-1257
Sr. Jacquelyn Doepker, OSF, Executive Secretary, email@example.com, (872) 205-5862