Sister Norma Pimentel speaks of her work at the border

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was a keynote speaker at the Religious Formation Conference 2019 Congress held in Louisville last week. (Record Photos by Jessica Able)

The sight of seeing children separated from their parents at child detention centers at the southern U.S. border was one of the most difficult things Sister Norma Pimentel has ever witnessed.

“To see so many kids, five to 10 years old in detention, to see their crying faces full of tears,” was almost more than she could bear she said.

Children were packed so tightly in the cages, Sister Pimentel said she could barely walk among them to pray. Their little voices rang out amid the steel confines and concrete walls with the words “God, help us.”

Sister Pimentel was one of the keynote speakers at the Religious Formation Conference 2019 Congress held Oct. 24 to 27 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. (Click here one for additional coverage.)

The Religious Formation Congress is a Catholic organization that serves men and women religious in their efforts in formation ministry. The theme of the 2019 congress was “Being Signs of Courageous Hope.”

During her 45-minute address, Sister Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, spoke of her efforts to listen to God’s call in her own life. She urged the conference-goers to do the same.

In her work at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, Sister Pimentel, a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, oversees an outreach ministry to migrant families who arrive at the shelter, sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The center is often their first stop after being released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We must not forget that the person we have before us is sacred. We must approach them with respect,” she said.

Just months ago, the respite center saw upwards of 1,000 immigrants a day. More than 150,000 migrants have passed through the shelter’s doors since it opened in 2014.

In July, the Trump Administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols also called “Remain in Mexico” in south Texas. With that policy, the numbers of immigrants Sister Pimentel and her volunteers serve has drastically decreased.

Sister Pimentel described the atmosphere of the respite center as “holy chaos.”

“I’m not uncomfortable with chaos if something good comes from that,” she said, getting a chuckle from the crowd. “We are restoring human dignity; that’s what we are doing.”

Sister Pimentel said the hundreds of volunteers who help serve families at the center bring hope.

“They come to be present to the other. To bring hope. A hope that comes from our faith. Our presence to others through our faith gives people hope,” she said.

The only way to have that type of faith, she said, is to have a relationship with God. If it were not for prayer and her relationship with the heavenly father, Sister Pimentel said, she could not go on with her work.

Participants of the Religious Formation Conference 2019 Congress sang during morning prayer Oct. 26.

She begins each day with morning Mass in order to set her priorities for the day.

“It centers me. It helps keep perspective that what we are doing is being God’s instruments to accomplish what God has set out for us to do,” she said.

For those who ask “What can I do?” Sister Pimentel simply says to pray.

Today in the U.S., she said, we face enormous fear.

“Fear to get involved, fear to care,” she said.

She recounted a story of an encounter she had with a woman at the supermarket who told her: “I’m scared … of those people that you are helping.”

Sister Pimentel replied with an invitation to meet those she assists, to encounter them as children of God.

“You have no reason to be scared,” she said. “They have done nothing. They are not criminals. Come and see. Meet them.”

She recalled Pope Francis’ words, “We must be okay getting tired doing good.”

“Don’t think what you are doing is enough. There is always more to do,” she said.

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