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Prosperity Meets the Poor: the Mission of Charleszetta ‘Mother’ Waddles in Urban America

Lord I try every day to do what’s right
You know that, because I pray every night
Why did they take my sonny to Viet Nam to fight?
He wrote me from his hospital bed
A friend of his got shot in the head
But mom, I wasn’t hurt too bad, my baby said.
Now that boy ain’t no fool
Although he had to drop out of school
Lord ain’t there something you can do?
Lord I don’t want to take too much of your time
And Lord forgive me for crying
But Lord you know I ain’t lying
He said three more days and back to the field
Lord I hope this time he don’t get killed
He also mentioned while he was in the bed
He wished he had some of my “Good ol Beans and Cornbread”
Lord no matter how far he roam
Stay with him Lord, don’t leave him alone
I know with you by his side, my baby will come home.
– Charleszetta Waddles, “A Poor Woman’s Prayer”
The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook

Mother Charleszetta Waddles (1912-2001) was an independent African-American Christian minister who operated the Perpetual Mission for Saving All Souls in Detroit, Michigan. What made Mother Waddles unique among Christian religious leaders in urban America during the middle decades of the 20th century was that she sought to reshape and repurpose the spiritual language of New Thought theology, especially the concept of “positive thinking,” for her daily practice as a home missionary and for others living in similar circumstances.

Like those who advocated positive thinking in the history of the New Thought movement, Mother Waddles maintained that “people shared in God’s power to create by means of thought,” producing either positive or negative circumstances depending on the nature of their thoughts. While certainly not the only Black minister in an urban storefront church or mission who attended to the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged, Mother Waddles represented a distinguishing embrace of New Thought within African-American Christianity, without the promotion of thaumaturgical (or “magico-religious”) practices. She was theologically distinct from other New Thought messengers precisely because she desired to speak to and change the particular lives and mindsets of other African Americans in poverty, with an emphasis on addressing and attending to Black women.

‘God Works Through People’

In a 1990 Michigan Chronicle interview, Mother Waddles stated her hope to put herself out of business, but she found her efforts still in demand at age 78. Referred to as the “Mother Theresa of Motown,” Waddles received local media attention late in that year because of a PBS documentary about her titled “Ya Done Good.” She used the renewed interest in her mission to write a weekly column in the Michigan Chronicle. “You’ve Got a Friend: The Mother Waddles Action Column” was her way to provide inspirational outreach to those with needs in the community as well as to solicit funds and services from others with resources.

In her first column, Mother Waddles wrote that many in the Detroit community were “ashamed to reach out to other people for help” when they were suffering. She encouraged readers to consider how providence might work through one’s neighbors: “You can’t ask God without asking people because God works through people….Don’t let your family, your children and others suffer because you are too afraid or ashamed to ask.” She listed the personal needs of several who had come to her recently for immediate relief: a woman with a learning-disabled son needed furniture and a washing machine, a woman wrongfully evicted from her apartment needed dishes and furniture for her and her children after her possessions were stolen, and a mother of nine needed food.

Two weeks later, Mother Waddles declared that Christians could not “praise God without helping to care for the suffering people” who surrounded them, and that an individual receives authentic joy through giving and sharing.

Reimagining Black Women as Co-Creators With the Divine

Mother Waddles urged Black women to conceive of themselves as divine 'co-creators,' capable of serving others and equipped for social survival by remaining resourceful with limited material means. Click to Tweet

In deploying New Thought discourses on prosperity, Mother Waddles urged Black women to conceive of themselves as divine “co-creators,” capable of serving others and equipped for social survival by remaining resourceful with limited material means. In 1970, Mother Waddles self-published The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook. She designed it to be a text that other primary meal preparers could treat as a sacred resource for spiritual development and family sustenance. And she included her own poetry in it, like “A Poor Woman’s Prayer.”

Mother Waddles’s cookbook poetry and prose served as a set of spiritual reflections for readers, and they allow us to consider how the foods that one chooses to prepare reflect the religious disciplines an individual commits to practice. For her, the domestic act of cooking occasioned ritual reflection upon the unacknowledged value of women’s labor.

In her book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power, the material culture scholar Psyche Williams-Forson notes that food events “are actually snapshots in the greater realm of social life. They are filled with a number of social, cultural, economic, political, and sexual ramifications.” Williams-Forson adds:

Contemporary [B]lack women come together in church kitchens and other domestic spaces to cook, socialize, or conduct business (where food happens to be involved) and to transcend and transform what is often perceived as commonplace. Recognizing that cooking is generally disdained as “women’s work,” they use these notions to their advantage when engaging in activities to promote community building and social activism. Yet even in this, women work as cultural agents.

Further, as the ethnographer and historian of religion Elizabeth Pérez notes in her book, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions: “Fleeting, humble acts such as those involved in food preparation may not be enshrined within the ‘world religions’ paradigm, yet they have historically determined the texture and density of practitioners’ everyday lives.”

A visible “cultural agent” in a Christian ministry, Mother Waddles sought to imbue the fleeting, humble, and mundane practice of preparing and consuming meals with sacred and social significance. She argued:

We can give matter or mold matter in many different ways, but, we cannot make the matter or the materials we use to create the matter; only God can. That is what creation is. To make not only the form, but the matter. That is why we must first acknowledge God, as the creator; and know our greatest achievement will be [as] co-creators through his grace” (Waddles, Attributes and Attitudes).

Consequently, she wrote her cookbook to cultivate in other co-creators implicit and explicit religious attitudes toward the preparation of food for bodies, souls, families, and communities. Throughout her slim, 40-page cookbook, Mother Waddles provided her own poetry, prayers, and religious reflections about daily life in 1970s Detroit in order to frame and shape the spiritual hurdles and material concerns of her audience of Black women. She encouraged Black spiritual and material survival in the mid-20th century context of urban American decline by demonstrating how Black women and men must approach, intellectually, the task of preparing, celebrating, and innovating upon food for themselves and others as a practice of self-care.

Fostering Spiritual and Domestic Leadership During Urban Deindustrialization

Detroit 1970
A photo from October 1970 of the Grand Riviera Theatre in Detroit (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Black woman who knew what it meant to live through the poverty of Detroit, raise several children as a single parent, and worry on a daily basis about how sufficient one’s limited resources would be to make it to the next day wrote The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook. Aside from the always pressing need to generate funds for her mission, Mother Waddles offered her cookbook for other poor Black women, most often also single mothers, in contexts of urban poverty to demonstrate both her intimate familiarity with their daily struggles and the social realities that made their daily tasks difficult.

One of the products of her labor in life was the knowledge to create delectable meals, as found in this book, which sold for $2.99 per copy. The significance of her labor in producing this cookbook was to impart an understanding of food—specifically, “soul food”—that gives meaning to the people who produce it: relentlessly resourceful African-American women with sole responsibility for their children’s well-being in this world, no matter the circumstances that left them as such.

Some of the components of soul food diets are often the least nutritional portions, reflecting the historical reality of mid-20th century Detroit’s Black population. As participants in and descendants of the Great Migration, this population had Southern origins, subject to American slavery’s legacy of neglect in all respects for the dignity of African-American bodies. This translated in practice to forcing enslaved Africans in America to make edible some of the least desirable portions of plantation livestock. Mother Waddles’s cookbook captures the history of African-American resourcefulness and creativity required for making a palatable entrée. The variety of recipes she detailed that assumed limited food options was her attempt to provide Black single mothers more than a variety of culinary options—she encouraged them to generate their own creativity by experimenting with ways to make meals for themselves and their families both enjoyable and sustainable.

The “poor woman’s kitchen,” in its formless state, was fertile ground for Mother Waddles to encourage God’s Black female “co-creators” to rethink positively and to reshape fruitfully their domestic spaces.

With the structure of her cookbook, Mother Waddles also indicated that creating meals offered personal significance beyond simply one woman’s ability to amass a record of cultural recipes. Detailing in her autobiography why she began her cookbook while recovering from a pelvic injury, Mother Waddles revealed how biblical cosmology supplied her with pertinent imagery about the lived, spatial realities of impoverished Black folks in urban America:

One morning my son came to see me and told me a gentleman had called him from New York to ask me to do a cook book. Of course, I laughed and said I couldn’t do it but a couple of nights later at about midnight, I heard a voice say, “The earth was without form or void,” and almost at once I said, “Yes, that is just like a poor woman’s kitchen, it is without form. If there is bread sometimes, there is no meat, then if there is meat and bread, you can’t cook because the gas is off and there is no heat.” From there I started my first cook book (Mother and the Way She Waddles in Faith).

The “poor woman’s kitchen,” in its formless state, was fertile ground for Mother Waddles to encourage God’s Black female “co-creators” to rethink positively about, and to reshape fruitfully, their domestic spaces. In one of her cookbook poems, she wrote, “Remember…creating a meal is a poor woman’s thing, / All she needs is imagination and a gospel song to sing. / [God’s amazing grace] and she is in full swing.” A poor Black woman is more than a cook or a preparer of meals according to someone else’s wishes: she is the creator of a meal. The habits of understanding one’s own worth involve recognition of individual creativity, even as it exists in varied forms among similar Black women, and acquiring a repertoire of familiar African American religious songs to lift and maintain her spirits.

To cultivate a daily attitude toward what it means to be a preparer of food, a creator of meals, in order to sustain the appetites of oneself and of others, is to encourage resourcefulness in order to survive spiritually in the face of material limitations. Mindset mattered for Mother Waddles as a Black woman who was both minister and mother, religious leader and the head of a household, and her meals must foster both spiritual and physical survival.

The moment of creating meals that satisfy others also exists to establish loving memories among parent and children, even in their absence. Motherly power, while never without its gendered complications in the history of domesticity and labor, becomes an immediate achievement in the face of the difficulties of single parenthood and a society that denies Black women their authority over families it does not recognize as legitimate. In these creative moments, there is also the possibility for spiritual self-care—it is acceptable and encouraged to speak to oneself and to God in prayer about one’s daily hardships. This form of intimate conversation leads to simple revelations: seek out a neighbor for extra food; or to ultimate care for the safety of others: concern for a son fighting overseas in the Vietnam War.

Mother Waddles, having lived these and similar hardships, and open as a minister to the needs of others, knew the importance of capturing Black women’s daily battles in poetry and prose while providing the wisdom of many Black women’s culinary creativity to overcome those hardships. By 1972, The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook had sold more than 50,000 copies. Her cookbook, by the circumstances of its production and in its very content, represented a sacred resource that modeled the strategic resourcefulness her readership and mission clientele must embody to prepare themselves for each day’s spiritual and material battles.

Rethinking Prosperity in Light of Poverty

We can learn from Mother Waddles that Black religious leaders embody theological, social, and political complexity, cautioning against any easy categorization of social impact according to religious teachings. Mother Waddles was a “prosperity” preacher. In her Bible study writings, Mother Waddles argued for the biblical justification of prosperity with reference to Psalm 122:1-7:

I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together. Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord. For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.

However, Mother Waddles did not make a case for anyone’s divine entitlement principally to material prosperity. Neither did she encourage their desire for financial wealth. In her New Thought-influenced Bible study literature, she also referred the reader to Psalm 41:1-3:

Blessed is he that considereth the poor: The Lord will deliver him in the time of trouble.  The Lord will preserve him, and keep him alive; and he shall be blessed upon the earth: And thou wilt not deliver him unto the will of his enemies. The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness.

She also provided Jesus’ words on the “Judgment of Nations” in Matthew 25:31-46, wherein Jesus promises the inheritance of God’s kingdom for those who care for “the least of these.”

Through her theology and conception of social action, Mother Waddles stressed the need to inspire people to do more with less, to learn how to be resourceful enough to exceed one’s own expectations: “…[I]f you want people to come up out of the ghetto, if you want people to reach out and be somebody, then there is more that has to be done, you know.”

Doing more, in her elaboration, meant that a missionary must encourage a Black girl’s understanding of her own beauty by providing her money to go to the hairdresser, or buying her prom pictures. It also meant acquiring a new outfit for someone interviewing for a job. For Mother Waddles, the Christian mission must change the self-image of others and teach them how to do as much in their daily lives. As a missionary, Mother Waddles tailored her New Thought teachings for predominantly poor, urban Black folks, all without promoting a conventional theology of material prosperity.

Further Reading:

  • Vaughn A. Booker, “‘God’s Spirit Lives in Me’: Metaphysical Theology in the Urban Mission of Charleszetta ‘Mother’ Waddles,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 22.1 (August 2018): 5-33.
  • Stephen Briscoe, “Mother Waddles: City’s poor ‘worse than ever,’” Michigan Chronicle, 3-9 October 1990: 1-A – 4-A.
  • Lee Edson, “Mother Waddles: Black Angel of the Poor,” Readers Digest, October 1972, 178.
  • “Mother Waddles: City’s poor ‘worse than ever,’” 4-A, and “Mother Waddles: One Woman’s War on Poverty,” Essence Magazine, Oct 1990: 48.
  • Elizabeth Pérez, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions (New York: NYU Press, 2016), p. 4.
  • “Soul Food Cookbook,” The Baltimore Afro-American, 27 Mar 1971: 21.
  • Charleszetta Waddles, Attributes and Attitudes (Detroit: Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission, Date unknown), p. 1.
  • Charleszetta Waddles, “Chapter Twelve,” Mother and the Way She Waddles in Faith, unpublished manuscript, 1977, Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, p. 8.
  • Charleszetta Waddles, The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook, Second edition (Detroit: Perpetual Soul Saving Mission for All Nations, Inc., 1970), p. 8.
  • Charleszetta Waddles, “You’ve Got a Friend: The Mother Waddles Action Column,” Michigan Chronicle, 24-30 Oct 1990: 3-A.
  • Charleszetta Waddles, “You’ve Got a Friend: The Mother Waddles Action Column,” Michigan Chronicle, 7-13 Nov 1990: 3-A.
  • Psyche Williams-Forson, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 161.

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Vaughn A. Booker