By Madalyn Johnson, Web Editor
As the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma Pimentel works in the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville and helps immigrants in a variety of ways: providing housing assistance for families, food, counseling and pregnancy care. While her work happens states away from Manhattan College’s corner of the Bronx, many came to hear Pimentel’s stories about her work with immigrants on Feb. 19 during the college’s annual Peace Week. The lecture, titled “Crossing Borders: A Catholic Response to Migration,” gave eager attendees a chance to hear Pimentel give a more personalized and emotional perspective of what she actually sees at the U.S./Mexico border.
Many departments, offices and faculty members were commended for sponsoring Pimentel’s visit. The Office of Student Engagement, Campus Ministry and Social Action, the peace and studies department, the labor studies department, the Office of Study Abroad, the modern languages and literature department, the religious studies department, sociology department, philosophy department and the Center for Ethics were all responsible for helping spread the word, in addition to Lois Harr, assistant vice president for student life and Kevin Ahern, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies.
Brother Thomas Franks led the room in prayer before President Brennan O’Donnell’s introduction speech, in which O’Donnell spoke about Pimentel’s letter to the U.S. President about how immigrants are dehumanized when traveling to America.
O’Donnell read aloud some of Pimentel’s statements saying, “Before the respite center is open, dozens of immigrant families, hungry, scared and in a foreign land, huddled at the bus station with only the clothes on their back, nothing to eat or drink and nowhere to shower or sleep. They waited hours and sometimes overnight for their busses. For the past several years, every day, from morning to evening, families coming over the border are welcomed at our center with smiles, a warm bowl of soup, a shower and a place to rest.”
After President O’Donnell’s speech, Pimentel was warmly welcomed. She began her speech by explaining what inspired her to engage in the volunteer work and charity she does today, in addition to what made her grow closer to God. She detailed her desire to become an artist but how her father intervened by urging her to become a teacher and wife. During that time, Pimentel’s friends encouraged her to join them in a prayer group and it was when the participants prayed for her, Pimentel explained, she knew she wanted to develop a greater connection with God.
“I started to discover happiness, true happiness in a totally different way,” Pimentel said. “So as I look back, I can describe it as the skills for my eyes and I started to see life completely different. I was just immersed in wanting to know more about God and just see God in a relationship to me in every way possible.”
She went on to describe what she sees first hand at the border. Pimentel stressed how the current U.S. immigration policy has led to a drop in the number of immigrants that come to seek help at the Catholic Charities centers in Texas.
“In the past couple of years, we have seen thousands of people come to our border, across the Rio Grande and ask for protection for safety,” she said. “So many of them, we’ve gone beyond 150,000 in the past five years and because of the different policies that have gone into place, to try to deter the families from coming to discourage them, we have seen that these immigrants stop coming.”
Eventually Pimentel’s speech evolved into a discussion about the way the humanitarian crisis is often treated by politicians and addressed in the political sphere.
“It almost seems as if the government just simply swept the humanitarian crisis under the rug. Another was you looking at me at the surface, which you actually see if you come to South Texas, you will see a tendency as you cross the Rio Grande into Mexico. There you will find thousands of families waiting for months in conditions that are so dehumanizing, so sad to see,” she said.
Throughout the speech, Sister referred to the Texas cities that are home to the Catholic Charities centers as “tent cities” to highlight the poor living conditions of immigrant families who are waiting for permission to live in the U.S.
Additionally, to break away from discussion about the downheartedness of politicians, Pimentel reminisced about the children who innocently forget about their situation through playing. When talking about her experiences watching children play on a playground, Pimentel made the point that God wants to see humans helping other humans.
“I strongly believe that God created us to care. He wired us that way. As soon as we see human suffering, there’s something in us that pulls us to want to help. That’s why I keep inviting our President, ‘You need to come down to South Texas. You need to see the families like how I see them,’” she said.
After Pimentel spoke, attendees asked a variety of questions from what political action she would like to see be taken regarding immigrants at the border, as well as how she copes with witnessing immigrant families go through these hardships.
Remarkably, Pimentel stated that through her work that involves dealing with devastation, she is not worn down because she has God in mind.
“I cannot start my day without the Eucharist because it’s my way of grounding myself with who I am for God and what he wants me to do,” she said.
When asked what the U.S. Catholic Bishops and Catholic colleges could do to address these issues, Pimentel immediately suggested members speak up and devote themselves to being true Catholics by acknowledging the fact that immigrants are being deprived of basic human rights.
“A stronger voice, a more authentic voice. The announcing of what’s wrong and to not be afraid of it because we’re going to lose support by some. We need to be true to our true convictions of who we are as Catholics and stand up and shout ‘this is wrong,’” Pimentel said.
Many students, faculty, Christian brothers and sisters came to hear Pimentel speak. Amongst the crowd were freshmen Isabel Frazza and Joanna Canigiani, who were pleased to hear the opinions about immigration from a nun who witnesses the state and order of immigrant facilities first hand.
Frazza shared how Pimentel’s speech, concerning the Catholic duty to help others, made her realize how critical it is the U.S. helps immigrant families in need.
“We should care because they’re not objects that we can push aside because it could be us, at any second, something could change and we can be in a position where we need help,” Frazza said. “So I don’t understand why they feel like we shouldn’t help other people.”
Canigiani commented about how significant it was for the school to host a religious speaker that engages in charity work with immigrants, and hear about what she sees and thinks about refugees.
“I think it’s very important since a lot of the media coverage, what the media covers is all the bad things that happen at the border and to see it from a different perspective where like she sees it as, ‘These people are amazing, they’re human beings,’” Canigiani said.
Kevin Ahern, Ph.D., similarly discussed the benefits of having Pimentel talk about such a heavy issue that has been swarmed with a vast amount of media attention and different perceptions about what political action the President should take.
“I think given that she is a nun and the sister, she has, I think, a type of sort of freedom to speak truth to power in a way that some people might not be able to,” Ahern said. “The Catholic Church, in not just the United States, but around the world, is one of the largest, if not the largest provider of services to migrants and refugees. So [Pimentel] has not just a type of freedom to be sort of prophetic, but also street cred to on this issue.”
President O’Donnell also expressed gratitude for Pimentel’s visit and hopes students who may be in denial of Pimentel’s views learned something from her speech.
“I would like to hope they heard that it’s not enough to just think that this is a political issue, it’s a human issue, it’s a deep, deeper human issue, it’s a spiritual issue. And to an extent, when we reduce this to my political ideology versus your political ideology, we dehumanize people,” O’Donnell said.
After the speech and questionnaire, attendees were encouraged to stop by the Catholic Relief Services tables to find out more information about Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s mission, as well as to donate to the humanitarian crisis relief or send letters to their senators.