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Sr Norma Pimentel and the experience that grounds her mission

Participants at the 2nd General Assembly of Talitha Kum welcomed Sr Norma Pimentel who shared her experience working with people on the move through the U.S. border.

By Sr Bernadette M. Reis, fsp

“The peripheries came to us,“ Sr Norma began her keynote address on Tuesday morning during the 2nd General Assembly of Talitha Kum taking place near Rome. Sr Norma Pimental is a Mexican-American member of the Missionaries of Jesus, and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

It all started in 2014, she says, when the communities along the Texas-Mexico border began to see floods of immigrants. She has heard people crying as they take their first shower after a long and perilous journey, a shower that one sister compared to baptism.

Then came the crisis of detention centers for children. The U.S. response to separate the children to keep them safe was creating a situation that worried many. They turned to Sr Norma to find out what was happening to these children. So, she asked a local judge to help get her into one of the detention centers, “because I wasn’t seeing the children they were talking about.”

Inside a child detention center

“Nobody had entered their detention center before that. I basically opened the doors for the world to go in… What I saw was something that broke my heart to believe and try to understand how would that be possible for us here in the United States to have little ones, not older than 10 years old in a detention facility…. That space could only hold 300 people…. There were clearly over 1000 children…they were there for a while.”

Sr Norma wanted to go into the glass-walled cells where the children were being held. When she was told no, she told the officer she wanted to pray with them. “How can you say no to a nun who wants to pray, right? So, I got myself inside.” That, she says, is the most difficult experience she has ever had, but is also the experience that “has grounded” her in her mission.

Changed policies, changed dangers

As the United States changes its immigration policies, organized human trafficking changes its tactics to extort money out of migrants, Sr Norma explains. Mexican gangs now resort to kidnapping and beating migrants as they speak with relatives on the phone as they wait for their appointments through the Port of Entry program.

Finding compassion on the border

Sr Normal concluded her keynote presentation with a moving story of a border patrol officer – one of many, she says. One migrant, a father, arrived at the center she manages in McAllen Texas with brand-new tennis shoes that did not match the rest of his condition. The officer who “apprehended and processed him” noticed his bare and blistered feet. He was “moved to tears” hearing the father’s story. Going out to his truck, he returned with a new pair of tennis shoes, took off his own socks, put the socks and shoes on the father he had just processed. “That is America for me,” Sr Norma said.

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