Student researches maternal sacrifice in early Christianity and in immigrant families

By Luanne Williams

Why would a mother leave her children and move to another country? It sounds like a rhetorical question asked by a gossipy neighbor, but for Wingate junior Alexandra Ferretiz Torres, it’s fertile soil for some interesting, and personal, research.

In the mid-2000s, her mother left Mexico in search of a better life for her and her family. Thanks to a Reeves Summer Research grant, Ferretiz Torres spent much of this past summer comparing mothers such as her own with early Christians who made similar sacrifices.

Ferretiz Torres searched for answers to a host of questions: Why would a mother abandon her children to join a religious sect? Why would a mother leave her children to pursue life in another country with no ironclad guarantee that they would be reunited? Are they motivated by self-sacrifice? And if so, how should society view their actions? The honors student is summarizing her research in a paper titled “Maternal Sacrifice in Early Christianity and in Mexican-American Immigrant Families.”

Having come to Louisiana from Mexico at age 6, some time after her mother had made the journey, Ferretiz Torres says Mexican mothers who leave their children when they immigrate to the US are making a sacrifice.

“It is not considered abandonment on the part of these mothers,” she says. “What they do is admirable and creates the foundation for success. Early Christian women and Mexican-American mothers are similar in this way.”

A student talks to her female professor via a Zoom call.

Ferretiz Torres double-majoring in religious studies and communications. She teamed up with Dr. Christy Cobb, assistant religion professor, to delve into “flourishing families in early Christianity” last summer and found that “family” during the first century wasn’t defined quite like it has been in modern America.

“First of all, there is no word in Greek for what we mean when we say ‘family,’” Cobb explains. “Our word for family is based on the Latin word for family. The closest Greek word is ‘oikos,’ which has a meaning that is closer to ‘house’ or ‘household.’”

Ferretiz Torres says, “We examined types of families in early Christianity and in the Bible. The most prominent example in Scripture (Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21) is Jesus rejecting his biological family and creating one from people who believe, basically saying, ‘If you follow God, you are my family.’”

“Today there is a lot of talk about the nuclear family, in contrast to the biblical text, where you don’t see that emphasized,” she says. The term “nuclear family” – meaning the core group, most often just parents and children – wasn’t coined until the 1920s, and the nuclear family wasn’t the majority family unit in the United States until the 1960s.

In addition to the Gospels, Cobb and Ferretiz Torres looked at Paul’s writings about marriage and family and moved on to the writings of Jerome and other early church leaders. They studied the rise of monasticism and examined the lives of Melania the Elder and Paula, third-century women who left their families to follow their faith.

“God and his works are supposed to be above everything else. Why would they be judged for wanting to be there for God?” Ferretiz Torres jotted in the outline for her paper.

“One of the aspects we studied was mothers leaving their children to live a Christian lifestyle,” she says. “That’s what brought me more to my topic about maternal sacrifice in early Christianity. My mom left me for a period of time to give us a better life. So it isn’t exactly the same, but it can be considered in the same context, leaving the family to fulfill their own betterment of life.”

Cobb says research helps students connect with source material in a new and deeper way. “I’m so proud of Alex for making those connections,” she says. “Our backgrounds contribute to how we read the text. I’m so glad she can view this in this unique way.”

Ten books about early Christianity lined up on a shelf.

The two worked on the research as a team but from a distance this summer, as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. Thanks to the Reeves grant, they were able to buy the books they needed, since they couldn’t meet up at a library to pore over texts side by side. Cobb shipped various books to Ferretiz Torres, and they discussed their findings via Zoom calls. 

Ferretiz Torres says the process helped her grow as a researcher; she became a faster and more attentive reader as she took notes and asked follow-up questions. 

“I approached Dr. Cobb at the beginning of my sophomore year and had expressed an interest in going to graduate school to study issues related to gender and sexuality,” Ferritez Torres says. “When she brought up the possibility of researching early Christian families as part of Reeves Summer Research, what interested me most is that it didn’t limit family to the traditional parents and children. It could be two women who consider themselves family. It could correlate to gender and sexuality, and this research could enhance what I could offer a potential grad program.”

She says she’s written 8- to 10-page papers before, but nothing as extensive as what she is working on now. 

Ferritez Torres hopes to present the research at the annual meeting of the North Carolina Religious Studies Association or another comparable conference in the spring.

Learn more about Religious Studies at Wingate.

Feb. 15, 2021

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