By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Sister Norma Pimentel visualized the tear-streaked, weary faces of people she serves at the border during her acceptance speech for the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award on April 21 in Davenport. Bishop Thomas Zinkula of the Davenport Diocese presented the award on behalf of the interfaith Pacem in Terris Coalition to Sister Norma, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, at St. Ambrose University.
Sister Norma is the 50th recipient of the award, created by the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council and inspired by Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth), which called all people to secure peace among the nations. Sister Norma is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus.
“The coalition recognizes your vision and commitment to providing direct humanitarian aid to immigrants at our southern border,” Bishop Zinkula said. “Your leadership to promote respect for the dignity of immigrants instructs and influences neighbors near and far, including in the halls of power. Sister Norma, you truly embody the words of Pope John XXIII as ‘a spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying leaven’ to your brothers and sisters around the world.’”
“By recognizing me with the Pacem in Terris award, you are honoring the hundreds of thousands of the most fragile and vulnerable and suffering human beings I have encountered at the border of south Texas,” Sister Norma told the audience. “It is their lives, their pain and suffering that become visible to the world by honoring me. Thank you.”
She spoke calmly and compassionately to allow the gathering to absorb her message about the need to ensure human dignity for all. “My experience at the border has helped me to see the presence of God among them. It has also been a grace that I can be present to them,” she said.
“I have encountered children in detention. Every time I share my story of this encounter, I am there with them — so many children, all crying; their faces full of tears.” They are “dirty and grey from the mud that had dried on their bodies” from crossing the river into the United States. They pleaded with her, “‘Por favor sácame de aqui!’ ‘Please get me out of here!’” She responded in tears, saying, “‘Let us pray.’ And they repeated after me – ‘Diosito ayúdanos!’ ‘God please help us!’”
She said the families she sees at the border are “victims of crime, of violence, of persecution.” She spoke of the unprecedented global movement of people, due to political instability, violence, poverty and persecution. “Respect for life must be at the top of everyone’s list. We cannot, we should not justify any violent action toward another person. We must be the voice that brings their voice forward — that implores for help to the world. We must let God be the force that draws us forward.”
Build peace through love
“… Responding to the needs of our brothers and sisters in distress,” she said, “is the responsibility of everyone, of every one of us. Let us be part of a response in history that did all we could to build peace through our actions of love, that help restore human dignity.”
Four days before the award ceremony, Sister Norma was a guest on Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan on CBS News. Sister Norma emphasized her focus on the women, children and men at the border and not the politics of immigration policy. She conveyed that message consistently during her full day of visits and activities April 21 in Davenport and in Rock Island, Illinois.
“I was born by chance in the United States,” she said over lunch with a small gathering of faculty, staff and students at Augustana College in Rock Island. The daughter of immigrants from Mexico, she and her family spent time back and forth in both countries. She embraces her identity and ties with both nations and her connectedness to the people on the border.
Augustana religion professor Jason Mahn, a Pacem in Terris Coalition member, asked Sister Norma whether it is difficult to work for structural change while addressing the immediate needs of immigrants. She said she focuses on being present to the people. That presence gives people hope, she believes.
Earlier in the day, she shared her story with students at St. Ambrose University, whom she said asked excellent questions. “Before this (event), I didn’t know who Sister Norma was,” said Daniel Salazar, a St. Ambrose junior who attended her morning talk and participated in the award ceremony as a candle lighter during the litany of recipients. Among the recipients were Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
After researching and meeting Sister Norma in person, Salazar felt inspired. “We could tell she was very genuine. She cares for the work she is doing. It inspires me to keep trying, to use my opportunities to help others within my community who don’t have those opportunities,” said Salazar, whose heritage is Mexican-American.
Samantha Sancen, a St. Ambrose sophomore, asked Sister Norma to sign her program booklet after the award ceremony and to pose for a photo. “She can be an inspiration for my people. I’m a child of immigrants,” Sancen said. “I want to work in social justice … She’s a good inspiration.”
“She’s an incredible witness speaking out for justice,” Sister Jan Cebula, president of the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton said afterwards, “such a Gospel witness.”