Sometime late last year, someone asked me to write about Saints Perpetua & Felicity. They said they were quintessential pro-life feminist icons, so I was so excited to dig into their stories.
Then, I went down to the Texas border.
My consistent life feminist group works with a shelter in Mexico for women who have experienced sexual assault, many of whom have become pregnant as a result.
As we drove down the bumpy uneven roads in this dusty Mexican town towards the shelter, we saw women carrying babies on their backs, and small children selling gum in order to buy their meal for the day. It’s a level of poverty that many aren’t used to, but there’s also a buzz to this city. The beauty of its people radiates with life in a place steeped in so much death. And it keeps pulling us back in, trip after trip after trip.
When we finally got to the shelter this time, we quickly realized it was a very special day.
They were taking their Christmas pictures, and with the influx of babies born last month, our board member K. (who runs the shelter), had a brilliant idea for the shoot. Like, many women destined to fail before her, she’s found pictures on Pinterest to guide her vision. Little Santa hats were to adorn the babies’ bottoms as they laid on their stomachs, looking up at the camera like the cherubs they are.
If you’ve ever been bitten by the Pinterest snake, you know where this story ends. The poison of Pinterest courses through your veins, making its way to your brain where it’s only job is to deliver one simple message: “This is going to be so easy! And turn out so cute!”
LIES! Lies, I tell you.
Within minutes, six adorable little infants were lined up, and seconds later I’m pretty sure the sound barrier was broken. All of the mothers began whistling and calling out, “Look here! Look here!” in Spanish, as they surrounded the babies.
Trying to get them to smile was a losing battle, because most just laid there like little lumps of cuteness. A hat would topple and a mother would quickly rush to put it back on, then scurry out of the picture. Then another hat, and another. This process continued for at least 15 minutes, until they were all finally ready to accept defeat.
It was an adorably universal circus. Babies gotta baby. They care nothing about your Pinterest poisoning. Nothing. They are the reason “fail” memes exist, because at some point you have to just laugh at the lies you told yourself about how these pictures would turn out.
The joy in the room was palpable, and as a bystander charged only with holding precious babies until showtime (then getting the heck out of the way), I couldn’t have possibly enjoyed this spectacle more.
But the trip was not all Santa hats and hilarity.
As we traveled between the shelter and the modest homes that many of you would call “shacks” — where some of the other mothers lived — K. told us the reality of their regular days.
She always does.
The tales of the caravan that came to Juárez last year, full of pregnant women, and those who’d just given birth. She told us the horrors of them being kept behind chain-link fences, under the border bridge on the Mexico side, for a week, people just passing by as if it were normal. Women with open c-section wounds that weren’t being treated. Mothers having their newborns taken away just long enough for their milk to dry up, before getting them back… with no way to feed them now.
So when I excitedly began reading the story of Perpetua and Felicity, that feeling quickly faded, and I immediately had to stop.
Here were two women, Perpetua who was pregnant and Felicity having just given birth, who were jailed for their faith under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus in the very early 200s. They were to be put to death for this crime.
After the guards were bribed, Perpetua — a noblewoman of means — was moved to a different part of the jail where she was allowed to keep and nurse her child until the time came for her martyrdom.
A mother locked up in a cold cell, trying to soothe and feed a newborn… the last time I thought about such a thing was when I was going through images of the detainment centers along the Texas/Mexico border.
I saw pictures of women with small infants cleaving to them for warmth, as they waited in holding — as if their very existence was a threat to others. I remember thinking how incredibly difficult that must be. Anyone who’s ever taken a child on a plane has tasted a small bit of what these mothers were — are — going through. Both of these women, Perpetua and the one at the border, had nothing to entertain their children in order to keep them tranquil.
I decided to press on reading, and couldn’t help but see the similarities in almost every paragraph of the Saints’ stories, as I read the summation of the texts compiled by Vivia Perpetua.
See, many people don’t understand the immigration system in the US. Coming to our border and requesting asylum is completely legal, but you have to prove why it should be granted and this can get a bit trickier. Actually, a lot trickier. In order to achieve refugee status, you must prove you’ve been persecuted or will be persecuted, on very specific grounds.
Your whole family was killed by the cartel in your home country and you’ve been told you’re next? Sorry, doesn’t count.
The persecution must be based on your gender, sexual orientation, or faith. As we quickly learned, not all faiths qualify.
K. told us the story of a man who’d started a small youth group to teach the children in his village about Jesus. More and more teens started attending; subsequently leaving their gangs. When the gangs found out about this, they killed the lay pastor’s in-laws and two of his children. He grabbed his remaining family and fled.
If we could ask Perpetua and Felicity, I’m sure they would agree that this is a textbook case of religious persecution, yet the US government disagreed, and this man’s family was denied entry.
Perpetua’s accounts of her and Felicity’s persecution (along with a handful of other male slaves) — apparently considered to be among the “oldest and most notable” early Christian texts — are still relevant to today. We feel for how difficult it must’ve been for Perpetua, caring in captivity for a child she knew she wouldn’t be able to rear. Our heart breaks for Felicity, whose biggest fear — get this — was that she wouldn’t be able to die with the others for her faith, because they had a law against killing pregnant women.
THAT is how deep her devotion to God ran.
She was ready to die for her beliefs. And as it just so happened, she did give birth before Severus’ birthday, where they knew their killings would serve as the main event. She gave birth on a cold cell floor… with no epidural… no one feeding her ice chips.
Obviously, migrant women who suffer through similar circumstances don’t have their deaths already destined. Still, many of them will lose their lives trying to survive while waiting for asylum, although it’s never their wish.
Because many are not from Mexico, but countries further south, they have an incredibly hard time finding work. And with mouths to feed, many turn to selling the only thing they have – their bodies. And the border is rife with memorials marking the spots where those bodies have been found.
When Felicity and Perpetua were taken into the arena to face their death, they were first scourged because that’s what the audience was demanding with their cheers. Then beasts were released into the amphitheater, not to kill them, but to torture them. Finally, a novice swordsman went in to kill Perpetua, but his hand wandered because he didn’t know what he was doing, so she finally grabbed the sword and placed it on her own neck to be put out of her misery.
Perhaps the trip is just too fresh in my mind, so I’m seeing the correlation everywhere. Or perhaps, the timing of the request to do this story was serendipitous: inviting me into Felicity and Perpetua’s stories while also deepening my sense of what modern-day women are suffering right now.
In any case, persecution is not something left in the past. It is an ever-transforming issue, growing in our present. It’s so easy to look back and see the injustice in Felicity and Perpetua’s story, but are we treating human beings better now? Are we honoring people’s human dignity any better millennia later?
All of this makes me wonder, how can we better serve living day Saints? Will we be the ones sitting in the arena cheering on their deaths or come to them and work to alleviate some of their suffering whenever possibly? Has this history of the church taught us anything?
Destiny Herndon De La Rosa is the founder of the secular pro-life New Wave Feminists organization. She is a frequent op/ed contributor to the Dallas Morning News and a sought-after speaker.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.