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Latina Benedictine nun made a personal option for the poor.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Theresa Torres is such a shy, unassuming person that the dream she had last summer seems like it was dreamed by somebody else. In it, Pope John Paul II presents her with a copy of the new Universal Catechism and solicits her opinion. Her answer: "I'm not sure this is going to meet the needs of the people because you have to be where the people are."

Torres, a 37-year-old Benedictine nun, admits the dream expresses her own vision for her life. She always had a desire to work with the poor, she told NCR.

Twenty years ago, she thought this meant being a missionary. Today, it means working with young people at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, located in an old Hispanic settlement in Kansas City. Mostly Mexican-Americans whose forebears built the railroads live here, but new arrivals from Mexico and Central America appear every day.

There are Hispanics in need, poor people right here, Torres said.

Like the people she serves, Torres embodies the rich, patchwork Mexican-American experience in the United States. She can point to ancestors who fled the Mexican revolution and worked the railroads in Iowa, and others who lived in what is now Texas in the early 1800s before the U.S. invasion of Mexico.

Raised in a small German community in rural Iowa by her mother and grandmother, Torres recalls still painful memories of poverty and discrimination: welfare, food stamps, and classes aimed at ridding her of her accent.

But Torres' story also includes a deeply rooted spirituality that fostered a desire to serve those even less fortunate than her own family.

"The rich faith of my grandmother and love of my extended family nurtured my vocation," said Torres, who lives here with a group of sisters who share prayers and meals.

In the mid-1970s, she enrolled at the Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and entered the convent in 1980. Torres said she chose the order because of its strong community life.

In 1990, as part of a graduate program at Boston College, Torres spent a year at the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio. The experience, she said, marked a "rebirth" for her.

"Cultural experience hadn't been part of my religious experience," she said, explaining she was the only Hispanic nun among some 270 sisters based in Atchison. "I needed to recapture what I grew up with - a Mexican understanding of faith."

At the center, she reconnected with aspects of her childhood faith, such as devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the understanding that ancestors can be intercessors. She studied Spanish, Mesoamerican civilization's relationship to corn and the theologies of mestizaje: the mixture of Spanish and Indian blood that created the Mexican.

A study of social and economic realities in the United States undergirded community activism, such as helping develop a mentorship program for Latina women called Hispanas Unidas.

"Being Hispanic, I had to reenter my own culture, understand systemic oppression, then act with a plan, never alone," she said.

Today, Torres continues to "act with a plan," if only because in a U.S. church that is more than one-third Hispanic, Latina nuns make up only 2 percent of U.S. sisters.

Her work with youth aims at building cultural awareness. "Today, when dealing with racism in society, they need to have a strong sense of themselves," Torres said.

And what inspires her to move forward with her plan? Torres - in the quiet voice with which she answered the pope in her dream - recalls the words of a mentor, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister: "Never be humble on behalf of the poor."
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Title Annotation:Networking; Sr. Theresa Torres
Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 17, 1993
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