Sr. Norma Pimentel, LCWR award recipient, embraces 'holy chaos' of her ministry to migrants

This story appears in the LCWR 2019 feature series. View the full series.

"Holy chaos" is how Sr. Norma Pimentel describes her ministry.

As the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley on the U.S.-Mexico border, Pimentel sees up to 800 migrants every day pouring into her center, often their first stop after being released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Here, the Missionaries of Jesus sister and her staff help them organize the rest of their journey to their final destinations, and provide them with new clothes, a hot meal and shower.

More than 150,000 migrants have passed through her ministry's doors.

That work has led to her being praised by, and later meeting, Pope Francis, being featured on "60 Minutes," "20/20," CNN and in newspapers around the world. On Aug. 16, she received the Leadership Conference of Women Religious Outstanding Leadership Award at the organization's annual assembly in Scottsdale, Arizona.

"There are times we must decide who we are, what we stand for," Pimentel told the nearly 700 Catholic sisters attending the assembly. "We must ask ourselves, dear sisters, 'What else must I do in the world today?' "

The need is urgent, she said.

"If it is not now, then when? If it is not you, then who?" Pimentel asked. "For it is in times of extreme pain and suffering, extreme measures of love are needed."

Path to congregation and devotion

Pimentel was born July 1, 1953, in Brownsville, Texas, where she grew up and currently lives.

Pimentel and her four siblings are children of Mexican immigrants — her mother from Matamoros, near the U.S. border, and her father from Chiapas, near the Guatemala border — and grew up traveling back and forth between Texas and Mexico. 

And yet her congregation, the Missionaries of Jesus, ultimately instilled in her a devotion to serving migrants. Her community, which she joined in 1978 at the age of 24, "formed that sense of my giving of myself, protecting and helping the immigrants the way I do. Since the day I entered, [my congregation] was already involved with immigrant families who were staying at our convents, brought to us by Border Patrol day or night."

In 1980, the local bishop asked the Missionaries of Jesus if they could oversee a shelter for refugees. It was there at Casa Oscar Romero where Pimentel became "100 percent absorbed in really advocating and defending immigrant families and children. Since then, that was very much a part of who I am." 

Pimentel worked and lived at Casa Oscar Romero for 10 years until 1992, when she went back to school to "better prepare myself to respond to families and the people who needed help." 

She already had a bachelor's degree in art from the Pan American University and a master's in theology from St. Mary's University, which she pursued as part of her formation, so Pimentel went on to University of Loyola Chicago for a master's degree in counseling. Two years later, she returned to Brownsville to become a counselor at Catholic Charities as well as its assistant director.

She became the executive director in 2004. Back then, she said, seeing 200 migrants would have been considered a busy day, as new detention facilities had been built in McAllen, Texas, which meant fewer families would be released to them. 

But 10 years later, in June 2014, the border experienced one of the most memorable waves of migrants, particularly of unaccompanied children. 

Pimentel said she took the lead in organizing the humanitarian response to migrants U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol dropped off at a McAllen, Texas, bus station, visiting the detention facilities where they were apprehended and processed, and teaming up with local parishes to utilize their parish halls for additional space during the 2014 surge.

"To visit the detention facility where they were apprehended and processed and seeing the children in those cells was very heartbreaking for me," she said. "[It was] like I had a dagger in my heart when I saw the suffering children with faces full of tears asking me to help them and not being able to remove them from there."

"That experience has marked me forever," she said. "That triggered in me a profound sense of commitment and dedication to make sure that I become that voice for them, that I can be that force that can defend and protect life, especially the immigrants'."

Today, Pimentel — who as a child wanted to be an artist — paints portraits of Central American families she encounters in her respite center, typically gifting them to various fundraisers. She gave one pastel portrait of a Honduran family as a gift to Pope Francis when he visited the United States in 2015. 

"What connects me to what I'm doing is the face of a child," she said. "Bringing a smile to their face always gives me focus as far as the importance of what I do. No matter how tired I am, if my presence and efforts bring a sense of relief to a family or child in distress, my sense of self is energized, and I go to sleep knowing I've done something good."



Serving immigrants amid perpetual harm, worsening political climate

Though the number of incoming migrants may vary over the years, their reasons for leaving their home countries remain consistent, Pimentel said. 

"It's the gangs and instability and how easily they're abused," she said. "They're afraid for their children, afraid of how easily someone can break into their house and kill their children or themselves if they don't cooperate, if they don't hand over their children to join the gang." 

Such instability also makes finding work more difficult, she said, and families are often extorted for more money than they have, and having to work for gangs to pay off whatever is asked. 

"That's the constant message we hear over and over again on why they come," she said.

Traffickers and the cartel are "part of the cause and effect of all this," taking advantage of the deterrence policies the U.S. puts forward by exploiting those who forgo the journey, Pimentel said. "President Obama was strong in deterrence and deportation, and this new administration under President Trump has just followed up on that and amplified it more, with greater emphasis on this negative narrative toward immigrants."

When families began being separated last year, fewer migrants were dropped off at Pimentel's respite center because adults were instead placed in detention facilities while the children were taken into custody. At the respite center, the children were asked to depict their time in custody by drawing on canvases; many drew themselves behind bars.

Between June and September 2018, after the family separation policy was reversed, she hosted the reunification of 600 families who had been separated for weeks or months. 

She recalled a child telling her, "Today, I'm not going to cry because I've been crying every single day since I was separated from my mom in over a month. But tonight, I'm going to sleep with my mom, and I'm so happy."

"It was amazing to be part of [the reunification] and see how a child is affected when they're separated from their family," Pimentel said. "We do so much to protect children and not be part of this perpetual harm that's done to the immigrants."

Over the years, Catholic Charities has borrowed spaces from different organizations to use as its respite center — parishes, an empty nursing home, and now renting a building near a bus station in McAllen. In December, they were tending to about 400 migrants a day, she said. In April and May, that number reached closer to 1,000, but since then has stabilized to roughly 700 migrants a day, still "so high" for what Catholic Charities is used to.

But those who temporarily have to share the neighborhood with Catholic Charities are not always welcoming, she said. They're sometimes vocal in their disapproval of the respite center's proximity or assume that any crime committed locally is the fault of the immigrants. 

"Immigrants are now profiled as the bad guys," Pimentel said, adding that this is a relatively new problem that she's only witnessed in the past few months.

There's an "unwillingness to see immigrants as people, [instead] as just intruders or as people who are here to hurt us. ... I feel that I must protect the immigrants and keep them from being exposed too much to the community so the community doesn't feel threatened."

"The fact that they're immigrants is not a reason to be afraid," she said. "Learning to help people make that distinction is important to me, and I find it more challenging to do because sometimes they're so close-minded in their beliefs," which she said she attributes to the influence of the current political climate.

'That connectedness to each other' is key

Pimentel said in a video shown before the leadership award was presented that through her work, something inside her had changed. She no longer feels boundaries between people, no matter their station in life. "It is as if we all have become one," she said.

In an interview with Global Sisters Report, she elaborated, saying, "that connectedness to each other as human beings — that is key in every relationship and every ministry we do. If we put that as secondary, then we've lost why we're doing what we're doing."

There were murmurs and gasps in the audience as Pimentel described the fear on children's faces as they appear at her door, the tears of relief on mothers' faces when they see volunteers welcoming them, fathers kneeling in prayer, thanking God for a place they are finally respected, and the shame on a child's face as they pull her close and ask in a whisper for clean pants because theirs are soiled.

The sisters rose in one accord in a standing ovation for Pimentel, who wiped away tears as the award was presented. 

"As consecrated people dedicated to our ministries, we must never lose sight of why we're doing this," she said in an interview. "I can be comfortable with chaos, and sometimes the Humanitarian Respite Center can be chaotic [in] how it looks, but there's a sense of order within that chaos, and that's why I call it 'holy chaos.' "

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado. Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

This story was updated on Aug. 19 at 9:30 a.m. CST to include video of Sr. Norma Pimentel speaking with GSR's Dan Stockman.