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How this Catholic nun and immigration activist became one of the world’s most influential people

Sister Norma Pimentel, known for her work at the U.S.-Mexico border, believes we must challenge the borders inside ourselves

Sister Norma Pimentel hands a child some candy at the Humanitarian Crisis Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on July 19, 2018.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, hands a child some candy at the Humanitarian Crisis Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on July 19, 2018.
Valerie Chiang

If it wasn’t for Pizza Hut, Sister Norma Pimentel might not have become a Catholic nun. She also might not be leading Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley — an organization that shelters and feeds countless immigrant families at the southern border each year — or be one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Forty years ago, she’d recently returned to her parents’ home in Brownsville, Texas, after completing a bachelor’s degree in art. Wanting to please her father but also bristling at his expectations, Sister Norma was becoming restless. In hopes of getting out of the house one evening, she called a friend of hers.

Her friend said she was going to prayer group and then, after that, to Pizza Hut. When Sister Norma asked her friend to pick her up after the prayer group, her friend said that wouldn’t work. Reluctant — but determined to spend an evening out — Sister Norma tagged along to the meeting. She took a seat in the back and was amazed at what she saw.

“Everyone was raising their hands and clapping and cheering. ... I was like, ‘Wow, these people,’” Sister Norma told me during a recent Zoom call. A framed image of the Lady of Guadalupe leaned on the teal wall behind her.

At the end of the prayer meeting, her friend suggested that Sister Norma, who was then in her 20s, sit in the center of the circle so everyone could pray over her. She wasn’t looking for a spiritual experience, but tension with her father had given her a headache that she couldn’t shake. So Sister Norma agreed, thinking, “Sure, maybe my headache will go away.”

As the people prayed over her, she felt something unexpected. “I would not know how to describe it,” she said, “but it felt good and there was a sense of peace and … I started to see life differently.”

Naturally curious, Sister Norma, who grew up in both Mexico and Texas, was inspired by the experience to explore the Catholic faith she’d been born into but had never fully participated in. She joined the same prayer group and began reading the Bible and praying the rosary.

“Everyone was surprised,” she said, by her decision to put her artistic talent and professional aspirations aside. But she was moved by “this sense of blind attraction to something that was calling me to discover something more.”

In Sister Juliana Garcia — a Catholic nun who ran a refugee shelter in Brownsville, Texas — Sister Norma found a mentor. That relationship gave her a sense of security that allowed her to break boundaries and “explore other potentials in my life.”

In college, a professor had pulled Sister Norma aside and encouraged her to not settle within the boundaries of her talent. If she wanted to develop as an artist, he’d said, she needed to try things that she might not excel at and risk not being perfect. Religious life similarly vaulted Sister Norma out of her comfort zone, allowing her to grow.

Working alongside Sister Juliana, Sister Norma came to understand that God’s love, mercy and compassion extends to all people — including immigrants. She was involved with the issue of immigration since the early days of her religious life, but there was a moment in 2014 when Sister Norma understood that helping immigrant children and families was her highest calling.

That year saw the crest of a wave — several years in the making — of unaccompanied minors and families coming to the U.S. from Central America. The trend began in 2011 and each subsequent year saw more and more children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras crossing the southern border alone.

From October 2013 to September of 2014, Border Patrol apprehended almost 70,000 unaccompanied minors. Unable to keep up with the sheer volume of people crossing the border, they placed the children in makeshift detention facilities, photographs of which sparked national outrage.

“I asked to go see the children when they were in the processing facility. These were the little ones — tiny kids, 5, 6 years old — and they were in great numbers at this processing facility where they were keeping the unaccompanied children,” Sister Norma said. “There were hundreds of kids — little ones, dirty, muddy, gray because they could not take a shower — and they were all crying. ... I could barely get into the middle of it all as they were all grabbing my dress and looking up at me and saying to me ayudame, help me.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, poses for a portrait in McAllen, Texas, on July 19, 2018.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, poses for a portrait in McAllen, Texas, on July 19, 2018.
Valerie Chiang

She continued, “I wished I could take them all with me and I knew I couldn’t so (I said), ‘Let’s pray’ and we prayed together and every word I said they would answer after me. It was such a moment of grounding myself. … I was grounded to know why God had called me.”

Sister Norma’s compassion isn’t limited to young immigrants and their families. She also is concerned about the emotional price border patrol agents pay.

“We must not forget that they are people,” Sister Norma said. “They are family members, they are parents, they are mothers, they are fathers, you know it cannot just go unnoticed what they see on a daily basis.”

She added that, as she sees it, Border Patrol agents’ spiritual difficulties stem from the fact that they are trained to deal with criminals. But apprehending families demands that they respond “with the care of a human being,” like “social workers.” Encountering two distinct groups of immigrants — single border-crossers versus families or children — demands a constant flipping between two opposing mindsets, a “shift” that “must have some effect on them,” Sister Norma said.

She said she has spoken with many Border Patrol agents who are moved by the plight of the children and families coming to the U.S. However, she added, “I’m sure there are others who become cold and distant and maintain the role they’re supposed to do: Law enforcement officer who cannot see that person as a person but as a subject.”

Most Border Patrol agents wouldn’t be able to do their jobs otherwise, said Sister Norma, who holds a master’s degree in counseling.

In recent years, the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border has deepened, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. Sister Norma pointed out that spikes in both immigration and deportation occur regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House. To her point, both the Trump administration and President Joe Biden have used an obscure clause in public health law known as Title 42 to expel immigrants amid the COVID-19 crisis.

At the end of the day, Sister Norma, like many other religious leaders, believes that bipartisan solutions to the ongoing immigration crisis must be found and that forces driving border surges must be addressed. It’s not enough to focus simply on securing the border, she said.

The fear of immigrants that many Americans have boils down to a fear of the unknown, Sister Norma said, adding that this fear of the unknown often holds many of us back from making progress in our lives. For the sake of spiritual progress, we all must confront the border crises that pop up in our own lives.

“The border is right here, where you are, and it is right here where you find people that are the peripheries of your life that are really there for you to reach out and welcome,” she said, “The border is within us as well. We create borders within our own lives that we use to keep ourselves safe... we need to be willing to open ourselves out, to reach out to what’s out there for us.”

“Like I mentioned about my art teacher,” Sister Norma said, “He challenged me to move out of that safety that I’d created to actually grow, to actually move forward and become more of what I was called to be.”