“We must be fierce as lions!”: Sister Norma Pimentel, advocate for immigrants, challenges us to do more

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Sister Norma Pimentel, the Catholic Charities leader from Texas who has become a tireless champion for immigrants at the southern border, challenged people of good conscience to do more to welcome immigrants into our communities during a luncheon today in Hamilton.

“When we reach out to an immigrant, what we’re really doing is we’re reaching out to humanity. We’re saying: ‘Humanity matters,’” said Sister Norma, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, who leads the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (of the Brownsville diocese). “When we don’t respond, we truly are allowing our humanity to be stolen from us. And we may lose our humanity if we’re not careful, if we’re complacent and say: ‘I’ve done enough. I’ve done what I can.’ Well, there’s more to do… We cannot be OK with what is happening today in our world. It is our responsibility. It’s a mandate from God that we all take care of humanity… It can never be wrong to help another person.”

“A rock star”

Sister Norma got a standing ovation after her half-hour speech at The Stone Terrace by John Henry’s, where she was the keynote speaker at the Magdalene Circle’s annual luncheon. The Magdalene Circle, part of the Center for FaithJustice, brings together women of faith committed to collective social impact.

In welcoming the audience, Stephanie Peddicord, the center’s president, joked that Sister Norma was their “faith hero, faith’s equivalent of a Hollywood celebrity.” And indeed, people crowded around the quietly radical, smiling nun for selfies, hugs and handshakes before and after the luncheon. Pope Francis even expressed his appreciation for Sister Norma in 2015.

“She’s a rock star in our circles, a rock star!” agreed Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton (right, with Sister Norma and her sister Irasema Pimentel). “Sister Norma is a soft-spoken religious woman who boldly lives out her faith through her loving and compassionate actions… She sees the inherent dignity in all people. Sister Norma has indeed elevated attention to this crisis and has added a voice to immigrants only wanting what we all want for our own families – a better future.”

Deadly policies

During her talk, Sister Norma specifically condemned immigrant detention centers, family separations, and a recent U.S. immigration program known as “Remain in Mexico.” 

Under that controversial policy, the Trump administration has turned away tens of thousands of migrants seeking asylum at the border, ordering them to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S. But drug cartels and gangs have exploited those waiting, kidnapping children, forcing women and girls into prostitution, and barring border access unless migrants pay hundreds to thousands of dollars they don’t have, Sister Norma said. 

Such policies have been deadly for some desperate migrants who have drowned trying to bypass checkpoints and cross the river to reach the U.S., she added. 

“It’s beyond me how we can be allowing that. We are putting people in harm’s way…. We continue to fail so many families, because we choose to say: ‘This is not my problem. If you don’t like it, don’t come.’ That seems to be the response of our country,” she said.

She added: “I think we all agree on three things: We all agree that our country must be safe, that we must protect our borders. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the right or the left, we also agree that we should know who enters our country. And we also agree that all criminals must be put away. But immigrants are not criminals just because they’re immigrants. We cannot just generalize and dehumanize them and make reasons why we don’t have to care about them. They are simply asking us for a chance in life, for us to look in our hearts, for us to be able to care. We must be fierce as lions to do God’s will. But we also must be gentle souls as we reach out to those who need our compassion.”

What you can do

Sister Norma outlined what we can do in our communities to support immigrants:

  • Reach out to immigrants already in your community to make sure they feel welcome. “Many of the families really miss back home, and they’re lonely and struggling,” Sister Norma said. “They have to stay here because of their children. We must be that supporting community.”
  • Reach out to your elected officials. “We must massively respond to make sure they are accountable,” she said.
  • Visit the border to witness the crisis firsthand and help. “Come down to the Valley. Rio Grande welcomes you!” she said.

Peddicord (pictured left, taking a picture of her daughter with Sister Norma) echoed Sister Norma’s call to action.

“For all of us, Sister Norma is here to bear witness to an ugly and worsening truth – a humanitarian crisis that is growing, deepening and worsening, a crisis that has fallen off the front pages because it has been pushed back, just across the Rio Grande River, to the Mexican side of the border. There, thousands of families are encamped without adequate food or shelter or basic life necessities while they await their asylum hearings,” Peddicord said.

“Yes, that is a harsh reality to face,” Peddicord continued. “Yes, it would be much easier for all of us way up in New Jersey to turn away, to remain complacent in our comfort and our privilege. But that’s why Sister Norma is here… her brave and bold witness will engage each of us in a collective responsibility to act. That’s what witness is. As we say to the youth in our program, once you experience something profound, you can’t unknow it. You can’t unlearn it. You can’t unsee it. So what will you do about it?”

Learn more

Learn more here about the work Sister Norma and her staff and supporters do at a humanitarian respite center in Texas. Sister Norma talks about the need for caring for migrants in this compelling MSNBC segment.

Subscribe for more news

For more information, contact program coordinator Stephanie J. Peddicord, president of the Center for FaithJustice, at speddicord@faithjustice.org; or Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities communications, ddifilippo@cctrenton.org or (609) 394-5181, ext. 1153.

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