Three years ago Brian Wagner of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, heard of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border. When he was presented with the opportunity to help, he was quick to respond.
Hundreds of migrants were crossing the border after fleeing violence in Central America, and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley was on the front lines of providing them with aid and relief.
Wagner, who is currently deployed in North Carolina assisting victims of Hurricane Florence, reflected on his decision to offer his skills in disaster case management.
“My wife Nancy and I both wanted to do what we could to help. I remembered a similar call during Hurricane Sandy when Catholic Charities had been at the front lines offering assistance here in South Jersey. Then, too, my Army training had kicked in and I was ready to do whatever was needed to get help to those most in need,” he recalled.
The couple spent a month at the Humanitarian Respite Center at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, located in the border town of McAllen, Texas. This respite center was set up by Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, to respond to the needs of families entering the United States after enduring a long journey and processing at facilities.
The center welcomes new journeyers, most of them single mothers with children, who were on their way to join relatives in other states who had purchased them bus tickets out of the border town. They stay at the center while they wait to catch their buses, anywhere from a few hours to overnight, and receive meals, showers, legal advice, medical attention and clean clothes during their stay.
“The faces of the migrants we served had been completely transformed by the time they left the center. Hugs, handshakes and tears of gracias had replaced the despair that had been so evident just a couple hours before. In such a short time, their respect and dignity had been restored. In those four weeks, [Nancy and I] witnessed firsthand the transformative power of the love of God. What a blessing it was to be those witnesses,” he wrote in 2015.
Now, three years later, Wagner has been instrumental in organizing the six “Share the Journey” solidarity pilgrimages to the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year — an initiative organized by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, to offer Catholics in South Jersey the opportunity to journey to the peripheries and the margins of society, as Pope Francis spoke of in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, as well as in the Share the Journey campaign that he launched in August 2017.
The most recent group of 10 that travelled to McAllen, Texas, also spent time assisting at the Humanitarian Respite Center responding to need, encountering migrants, listening to their stories, and spending time with Sister Norma Pimentel, who gave them a tour of the communities in the area.
But it was not just migrants that the group encountered.
Samantha Astley, Catholic Charities’ Volunteer Coordinator who served as the leader of the group, described an unexpected encounter that occurred when three border patrol agents approached them at an immigration checkpoint while they were learning about the complex process that occurs when migrants enter the United States.
These agents struck up a conversation with the group, explaining the work they do and offering their perspectives on the immigration and humanitarian crisis that the country has been facing. They explained the importance of keeping families and communities safe through their work, and that their focus was not to keep everyone out of the country, nor was it to send them back to the violence they escaped from. It was to ensure that those entering the countries do not pose danger.
As Astley recalled, “One of the agents was a son of immigrants who crossed the border from Mexico. This agent, like the others we spoke with, is a father, and said the hardest part of their job is when they see children crossing the border by themselves — dirty, hungry, exhausted and alone. He told us that he saw two boys, not older than 11 and 8 years old, who crossed the border with nothing more than a note that said an address for relatives here in the United States. Most agents that we encountered didn’t want to interact with us, but these three said the only way to keep the community and the country safe was to be a part of it — to meet people, to talk to them and work within the community they serve.”
It is through these encounters that these individuals return to Southern New Jersey with a more profound understanding of immigration, the plight of migrants, the right to protect borders with both justice and mercy, and most importantly, the call for Catholics to love and welcome their neighbors.
Both Astley and Wagner were quick to praise Sister Norma Pimentel and her commitment to assisting migrants. Since 2014, almost 100,000 individuals have been assisted through her Respite Center at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
Wagner said, “If I’ve ever seen and/or felt the Holy Spirit presented in the person … that’s Sister Norma. She is someone who I truly and deeply admire to the core. She’s the role model for role models.”
Catholic Charities will be honoring Sister Norma with the Saint John Neumann Award at its 15th Annual Justice for All Awards Dinner on Oct. 4 at Resorts Hotel, Atlantic City. To learn more about the dinner and its honorees, visit: www.CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/JFA2018