Putting a face on the ‘other’: Catholic Charities’ Justice for All Dinner

After being detained and released by law enforcement, immigrants who crossed into the U.S. illegally wait at the Catholic Charities relief center in McAllen, Texas, April 6.
(CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters)

“I think we live in a society that is gripped by fear,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, told the audience of 400 gathered at Catholic Charities’ annual Justice for All dinner last October in Atlantic City.

“Fear of the other, fear of the unknown. Put faces on those who are feared,” he continued. “There are efforts today to take away faces so that the unborn become an appendage, the refugee becomes a threat, the prisoner is irredeemable, the elderly can be discarded. What Catholic Charities does is put a face on these marginalized people. What you do shows these faces — ‘this is what they look like.’”

It was his tireless efforts in working and advocating for the poor and the vulnerable that prompted Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, to honor Cardinal Tobin at the 2017 dinner with its Saint John Neumann award.

The cardinal concluded his speech that evening by exhorting all in attendance: “I encourage you to answer the fear with faces. The faces of the families we help. The faces of the lowly, the forgotten, the marginalized, who, by definition, can become invisible.”

Sister Norma Pimentel

This year, on the 15th anniversary of the Justice for All dinner, the main honoree comes from a place in the country that has been discussed frequently in the media and has generated much public fear: the United States/Mexico border.

Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus has been internationally recognized, including by Pope Francis, for her humanitarian efforts as the executive director of Catholic Charities of Brownsville, Texas.

There, for the past 12 years, she has overseen the many operations and services of the agency, including emergency assistance, homelessness prevention, disaster relief, clinical counseling, pregnancy care, food programs, among others.

But what has made Sister Norma stand out both nationally and world-wide is her fearless efforts in orchestrating the emergency response to the surge in Central Americans crossing the border seeking asylum. This massive wave of migration, begun in 2014, continues to this day. The majority of these Central American immigrants — many from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have been crossing via Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, surrendering themselves to Border Patrol, hoping the legal system will allow them to remain in the U.S.

All of these families are fleeing horrific levels of violence, trying to rejoin family members, looking for dependable work, and — more than anything — seeking safety.

Sister Norma has stood in the chasm between differing policies and political views, focused instead on the faces, the desperate humanitarian needs of those arriving at the border every day.

Responding to the basic, humane needs of these newcomers, Sister Norma opened the Humanitarian Respite Center — a safe haven for arriving children and families to eat a warm meal, replace their dirty and tattered clothing with new clothes, rest, shower, receive guidance regarding immigration and legal services before continuing their journey to relatives’ homes throughout the country. Since 2015, tens of thousands have been assisted.

These efforts captured the world’s attention, drawing news media from all over the world to the Rio Grande Valley to tell the stories of the plight of these distressed migrant families and individuals. The attention compelled thousands from the United States and other countries to offer their time and talents at the Respite Center to serve and support these immigrants in such desperate need.

Among these volunteers have been individuals from the Diocese of Camden, who were sent by the diocese on trips to the Rio Grande Valley to encounter these migrants, assist in efforts at Sister Norma’s Respite Center, bear first-hand witness to the complicated process of immigration, and bring back a deeper understanding of the hardships and challenges facing immigrants. Personally accompanying and guiding these individuals has been Sister Norma.

According to Vicki Mitchell, a Stockton student who journeyed to McAllen, Texas, “I have never felt so honored to be able to show love to the migrants passing through the center. I finally understood what it meant to encounter Christ in another, and what it meant to share his love. If I could share any words about how this experience has changed me, it’s that we are all one Body of Christ. If Christ can surpass all borders, so can we.”

Ivan Soares, the campus minister at Rowan University who also journeyed to the border, reflected, “We also learned that Border Patrol agents are not the bad guys either. Catholic social teaching holds that a country has a right to regulate its borders, but that it must do so with justice and mercy. … The church’s hospitality and services should never be conditioned by legal status, and we are all called to solidarity with our neighbors, whomever and wherever they may be.”

Combatting “fear of the other” through acts of encounter and love is a challenge that Pope Francis has called upon all Catholics to meet. It is what Cardinal Joseph Tobin encouraged his audience to do, and it is what Sister Norma Pimentel does every day.

And so, on Oct. 4, Sister Norma Pimentel will join 42 other individuals and organizations over the years who have been honored through Catholic Charities’ Justice for All dinner, originating in 2003. In addition to Sister Norma, the agency will honor five “Disciples of Mercy”: individuals or groups who have, through spiritual and corporal works of mercy, lived out Catholic social justice in Southern New Jersey.

In addition to honoring the work of these exemplary individuals, the dinner also is Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden’s biggest annual fundraiser. All money raised from this event provides direct assistance to the most vulnerable people in the diocese, specifically for programs including the Family & Community Services Centers, Refugee Resettlement, Adoptions, and Counseling Services. Funds raised are for the unrestricted use of those programs for distribution directly to South Jersey individuals and families in need.

The Justice For All Dinner and Awards Ceremony will be held on Oct. 4 at 5:30 p.m. at Resorts Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. For tickets and more information, visit: www.CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/JFA2018