Sister Norma Pimentel: An impromptu chat with the “Pope’s favorite nun” during a drive to the border
MISSION TO THE BORDER: In late June, Milwaukee-based Forward Latino led a delegation to the southernmost border section between Mexico and the United States of America. Leadership and board members of the nonprofit Hispanic advocacy organization planned the trip as a way to separate politics from the reality on the ground, by seeking first-hand reports for themselves. The group met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, immigrants, refugees, relief agencies, border city officials, local faith leaders, and the government of Mexico. The spectrum of voices and views offered a closer narrative to the truth of the actual situation at the border.
Norma Pimentel is a Sister with the Missionaries of Jesus, one of the nation’s strongest champions for immigrants, and a witness to the most vulnerable. She has been on the front lines of mercy for three decades, supporting those who seek refuge. Time Magazine featured her as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
During the Trump-era, when American policy shifted to act with cruelty toward immigrants, Sister Norma’s efforts were driven by compassion. In her capacity as Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, she directs efforts to provide shelter, food, sanctuary, and comfort to people often treated as less than human.
She oversees ministries and services that include emergency assistance, homelessness prevention, disaster relief, clinical counseling, pregnancy care, food programs, and the Humanitarian Respite Center.
Sister Norma has become a true symbol of Christian love, which brought her unexpected international attention. Pope Francis singled out her boundless hope and fearless compassion during a 2015 papal broadcast, praising Sister Norma’s efforts to welcome immigrants at the Mexico–United States border. The comment went viral and earned her the unofficial title of “Pope Francis’s favorite nun” in the American Catholic Church.
“I want to thank you. And through you to thank all the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done, and that you do in the United States. It is great. I congratulate you. Be courageous. Move forward … Is it appropriate for the Pope to say this? I love you all very much.” – Pope Francis
Born in Texas and raised along the Mexico-United States border, Sister Norma is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up crossing back and forth from Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico. She holds degrees from Pan American University, St. Mary’s University, and a Master’s Degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University Chicago.
On assignment for Milwaukee Independent in late June, I followed the leadership and board members of Forward Latino on a fact-finding trip into Mexico with Sister Norma, to visit immigrant and refugee shelters in the city of Reynosa, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. They were facilities that Sister Norma managed, and it was an honor to have her give the group a personal tour.
Because the vehicle the Forward Latino delegation had rented in Brownsville, Texas was too large to cross the border, Sister Norma recommended we park at a nearby lot and then walk over the Hidalgo-Reynosa Bridges, instead of driving. She would have someone in Reynosa pick us all up. It is the method she uses to cross the border on nearly a daily basis.
I thought Sister Norma would come along in the delegation’s vehicle, and that she would drive around the block from the Catholic Charities Respite Center to park in the spot we vacated. So I asked if I could ride along with her, in part because of the extreme heat meant I did not have to walk all the back to that location.
Through a combination of miscommunications and my misunderstanding, Sister Norma drove around the block so that the Forward Latino group could follow us in the rental van. That was how I found myself in the passenger seat of Sister Norma’s vehicle, having an unplanned conversation alone with her for a half hour.
Q&A with Sister Norma Pimentel
Milwaukee Independent: If you had one message for Americans about the issue of immigration what would you you tell them?
Sister Norma Pimentel: I find that people need to come here and see. Because unless you see, you have nothing to feel and understand the human suffering of the person. I think that people fail to see the human aspect, the fact that it is human beings, it is people, like your mother, like your son, that are suffering. The political aspect is secondary to the human aspect. We must be present to humanity in its most critical states. I think we are a country that needs to learn how to take care of ourselves, take care of our borders, make sure our country safe, but without neglecting the humanity. Our policies must respond to the reality of what it takes to care for these people. Not just to feed them, we need to make sure that each human being is safe in the process. They are running away from people in their community who are terribly, and have no respect for life. I think that America needs to see the fact that human beings have a moral obligation to one another, to defend life and to protect it, and to uphold that. The only way you can see that is if you come and see for yourself and become aware. So many people are misled by false information, or a narrative that is political and trying to just control their minds to do, think, and act the way they want them to.
Milwaukee Independent: Even with your faith, how do you find hope in so much darkness?
Sister Norma Pimentel: There are things that do disappoint me, and I wish it was different. I hold on to the innocence of a child that I see before me. I don’t have to do much to make that child smile, and be happy. And that brings me hope. It gives me hope to find that with so little effort. I can touch a life and help them to feel better. It wakes me up every morning so I can do more again the next day. As long as I have the capacity to get up and do something, and want to do it. It is my my mission to share what I see and help others see the same, as the fact and the truth. I have seen many people change. I have seen people come up to me saying they are 100% against what I am doing by helping ‘illegal aliens.’ I say let me show you what I do. Let me help you see what I see. And they see it for themselves. And they change 100%, saying you are doing the right thing. This is what we need to do. How can you deny water to a child or a mother, or pull families apart? We need to recognize that these are people. We weren’t born that way. God wired us that way, so that we care. So when you do not care, it is because you really are holding on to something that is not okay, something that makes your heart hard. We need to break through those hearts of stone.
Milwaukee Independent: How do you reach those people that are so terribly lost and only want to hold onto their fear and anger?
Sister Norma Pimentel: It is hard to reach out to them, if those people do not want to be reached. They have shut down, and they will need to make up their own mind about what they want to believe – what is the truth for them, and the facts that they want to hold onto. It will be almost impossible to change them, unless they choose to be honest. God is always knocking at your heart, but you have to open from the inside. Not even God can come in if you do not let him in. He is always there to try to help us see. If we do not want to see, there is nothing anyone can do. You are the one that has to make the decision. I think that the moment when we are the weakest and at the lowest point, that is when there is a crack in our heart that allows the presence of God to come in. That is when we have a chance to see life differently. God is the only one that manages to get into those cracks. And his spirit really works in us for change, it is amazing. It is the power His presence. So, sometimes when you find yourself in situations where you see humanity suffering in such extremes, we react and we want to do something about that. Otherwise, we forget. We get so caught up in our own world, and we create a little bubble of protection to be safe. I like to go around popping those bubbles.
Milwaukee Independent: Where can people find the strength and courage to go out into the world and do the work they are called to?
Sister Norma Pimentel: I understand it is hard, and that people always feel the need to protect yourself. But the more you get involved, the more you are part of life – of the world happenings, the freer you are and the more full of life you are in. So your effort to protect yourself is more like destroying yourself. It is self-defeating by taking the position of indifference, the position of ‘I need to take care of only me and my family.’ You have to trust that if you do your part, God will do the rest. He will make sure that your life will have some meaning. Our gifts and talents are for the good of everyone. That is what we need to do. When you do that, there is no need for depression pills to face our hardships – or these false ghosts we create in our lives that makes us depressed. All that denial, it only makes us sad.
Editor’s Note: On June 30, the day before this feature was published, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that President Joe Biden could cancel the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program. The controversial policy had required authorities to either jail or deport asylum applicants from Central America, denying any entry to the United States until their cases were resolved. With the Supreme Court’s ruling, lower courts must now consider whether the government complied with administrative law to end the policy.
- Sister Norma Pimentel: An impromptu chat with the “Pope’s favorite nun” during a drive to the border
- Mission to the Border: Latino advocacy group leaves politics behind for immigration fact-finding tour
- Mission to the Border: Milwaukee delegation gets first-hand reports from refugee shelters in Mexico