Charleszetta "Mother" Waddles Biography
Activist, spiritual leader
For nearly four decades, the Reverend Charleszetta Waddles, affectionately known as "Mother Waddles," devoted her life to providing food, hope, and human dignity to the downtrodden and disadvantaged people of Detroit. Founder, director, and spiritual leader of the Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission, Inc., a nonprofit, nondenominational organization run by volunteers and dependent on private donations, Waddles believed that the church must move beyond religious dogma to focus on the real needs of real people.
"We're trying to show what the church could mean to the world if it lived by what it preached," Mother Waddles told Newsweek. "I read the Bible. It didn't say just go to church. It said, 'Do something.'" In addition to operating a 35-cent dining room on Detroit's "skid row" that serves appetizing meals in cheerful, dignified surroundings, the mission offers health care, counseling, and job training to thousands of needy citizens. Still others benefit from an Emergency Services Program that provides food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Well into her eighties, Waddles continued to work 12-hour days and to remain on call throughout the night. "We give a person the things he needs, when he needs them," she told Lee Edson of Reader's Digest. "We take care of him whether he's an alcoholic or a junkie, black or white, employed or unemployed. We don't turn anyone away."
Charleszetta Waddles was 36 years old and the mother of 10 children when she began what James K. Davis of Life described as her "one-woman war on poverty." Learning that a neighbor with two children was about to lose her home, Waddles took a pushcart and went up and down the street collecting food from local businesses. These donations were enough to feed the family for eight weeks, while whatever money the woman had went toward payments on her house. Having witnessed the power of Christian charity, Waddles began studying the Scriptures, and within a short time became ordained as a Pentecostal minister.
With the help of her husband, Payton Waddles, Charleszetta opened the Helping Hand Restaurant, and in 1956 established the Perpetual Mission. Over the years, Waddles's tireless work among the poor has earned her countless honors and awards, including the 1988 Humanitarian Award from the National Urban League, the Sojourner Truth Award, the Religious Heritage Award, and letters of commendation from U.S. vice-presidents Hubert H. Humphrey and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1990 she and her mission were the subject of a highly acclaimed television documentary, Ya' Done Good.
Charleszetta Waddles, the eldest of seven children, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1912. From her earliest years, helping others came naturally to her, whether it was looking after her younger brothers and sisters or doing chores for elderly neighbors. When she was 12 years old, her father died, and she was forced to drop out of school to help support her family. The only job she could find was as a full-time housemaid. At the age of 14, she married 19-year-old Clifford Walker. He died five years later, leaving her with one child and dim prospects. Within two years, she had married again, and over the next 15 years had nine more children.
In 1936 Waddles and her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where her husband hoped to find a better job. Instead, he ended up working in a restaurant for 11 dollars a week. His lack of ambition ultimately drove Waddles to leave him; she felt it was better to go on welfare to support her family than to remain with a man with such limited aspirations. What welfare and Aid to Dependent Children failed to provide, Waddles managed to scrape together on her own. "I've put tubs in front of my house on weekends and sold barbecue," she told Vern E. Smith of Newsweek. "I've picked up numbers in the neighborhood because that's what I had to do if I wanted my kids to have the things they needed. It was an educational experience. You learn how to survive. I think that knowledge ought to be used to help somebody else get by."
Waddles was still struggling herself when she stepped forward to help save her neighbor's house. Shortly thereafter, she had a vision directing her to create a church with a social conscience—one that would feed, clothe, and shelter those in need. But it was her third husband, Ford Motor Company employee Payton Waddles, who made it all possible. She was selling barbecue to raise money for a church function when he first crossed her path. Waddles, she told Edson, was "the channel the Lord used to make me free to help others."
As a child, Charleszetta Waddles had witnessed first-hand the hypocrisy that can accompany the conventional church and many of its members. Her father, a successful St. Louis barber, was once the darling of his congregation. Then, unknowingly, he happened to give a haircut to a customer with impetigo, a contagious skin disease. His business was ruined overnight. From then on, he was unable to make a decent living. Dejected, he stood on street corners for hours at a time. When he died, few church members attended his funeral. Waddles identifies this heartless rejection of her father by so-called "religious" people as one of the most traumatic experiences of her childhood, and one that has strongly influenced the course of her life and work.
When, in the late 1940s, Waddles began holding prayer meetings at her house for small groups of local ladies, she emphasized practical, charitable actions rather than religious rhetoric. No one, she told her friends, is too poor to help those who are less fortunate. She advised each one to take a single can of food from their shelf and give it to someone in need. After a period of diligent bible study, Waddles became ordained as a minister in the First Pentecostal Church. She was later re-ordained in the International Association of Universal Truth. In 1950, her desire to give tangible shape to the teachings of Jesus Christ inspired her to open the Helping Hand Restaurant. "I started by begging free rent," she told Davis. "I went out to markets with a pushcart and collected scraps and cleaned and used them."
Situated on the edge of Detroit's skid row, surrounded by flophouses, all-night movies, and day-labor pools, the restaurant offered simple yet wholesome meals for just 35 cents—or free to those whose pockets were empty. Over the years, as Waddles's reputation grew and private donations trickled in, the entrees became heartier and the menu more varied, but the price of a meal remained the same. All patrons, no matter what their station in life, were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home.
"Unlike the soup kitchens of the Depression era, where the destitute lined up with a tin cup for a handout, Mother Waddles's establishment boasts white tablecloths, a flower on every table, and uniformed waitresses," wrote Reader's Digest contributor Edson. Those who could not pay could eat for free, while those who could afford to often paid as much as three dollars for a cup of coffee. At first, Waddles did all of the cooking, dishes, and laundry herself, but as time went by, dozens of dedicated volunteers joined her.
Waddles was not content to stop with her 35-cent "miracle meals," however. In order to feel truly useful, and to bring about lasting social change, she had to get at the root of urban poverty. To do this, she needed to expand her mission and enlarge its premises. One day in 1956, while thumbing through a Detroit newspaper, she came across an advertisement reading, "Store for Rent, two months rent free." She immediately contacted the landlord for further details and learned that the ad was misleading–that, in fact, the prospective occupant would have to pay two months' rent up front before receiving the discount–but she somehow managed to convince the owner to let her have the space for free.
This storefront property, located in a crime-ridden area of inner-city Detroit, was the original home of Waddles's church, the Perpetual Mission for Saving Souls of All Nations. Its name was later shortened to the Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission. Fires, financial setbacks, and other problems have forced the mission to move numerous times over the years, but its spirit and goals have remained the same. "We are," Waddles told Edson, "the most unorganized, successful operation in the world."
Since 1956, city agencies have referred thousands of needy people to Mother Waddles's mission. Thousands more have simply walked in off the street. "This is the last resort for a lot of people," mission worker Don Richardson told Newsweek. "If we don't solve the problem, it's not going to be solved, and this gives every case that much more urgency." Waddles was assisted in her work by a committed corps of volunteers that ranges in size from about 50 to more than 200. The type of help provided always varied greatly. Waddles "cajoled businessmen into providing temporary aid for new arrivals to Detroit, outfitted a ragged teenager with clothes in which to graduate from high school and convinced drug addicts to seek out a new life," Edson wrote.
But perhaps more importantly, Waddles provided once hopeless and disenfranchised people with the spiritual strength and confidence to pull themselves out of poverty and desperation. "You can't give people pride," Waddles told Edson, "but you can provide the kind of understanding that makes people look to their inner strengths and find their own sense of pride."
In addition to helping countless people through miscellaneous crises, over the years Waddles introduced a number of innovative social and educational programs. These include a self-help center offering classes in typing, dressmaking, machine operating, and upholstery; a tutoring program designed to help keep teenagers in school; and a job placement service for the unemployed. In 1972 she managed to persuade two young, white doctors to give up their lucrative suburban practices and open a clinic in the mission. Here, poor people could receive quality health care for free, or at minimal cost. Around the same time, she set up a halfway house for a handful of mental patients who had nowhere to go following their release from state institutions. The state contributed $30 a week towards the care of each patient.
Other projects have included the Auto Safety Troubadours, a group of young people who came together to study African American history and sing safety songs at civic functions, and a special troop of Camp Fire Girls. "The ministry means administering to people whatever their interests, young or old," Waddles told Life's Davis. "That's why I have such an octopus of a program." The mission also houses a simple chapel, where Waddles conducted Sunday services. The choir is composed of volunteers and members of Waddles's immediate family.
Because it receives no city, state, or federal funding, the mission is faced with constant financial crises. Churches and local businesses provide some money, and many of the people Waddles has assisted in the past—such as champion boxer Thomas Hearns—come back to help. Those who cannot give money donate food, clothes, or furniture. To generate additional income, Waddles wrote books on philosophy, self-awareness, and self-esteem, as well as two soul food cookbooks.
The cookbooks have sold more than 85,000 copies since 1959, and all of the proceeds have been channeled back into the mission. Waddles also shared her inspirational message with radio and TV audiences in the Detroit area, and on numerous occasions, her public appeals for help have brought in generous donations. During one emergency, Michigan governor William Milliken was moved to donate a side of beef, and automaker Henry Ford sent in a check for $1,000. In 1984, a fire forced the 35-cent dining room to close its doors. Ten years later, just as Waddles was preparing to reopen it, another fire gutted the mission's warehouse, destroying a kitchen's worth of restaurant equipment and tons of donated clothes. When asked how she retained her optimism in the face of constant setbacks, Waddles's reply was simple: "I'm accustomed to change," she told the Detroit Free Press. Her son, Charles Sturkey, put it another way. "Mother has faith that God is working through her and will always provide her with what she needs," he told Edson. A second mission operates under Waddles's name in Kumast, Ghana, West Africa.
Throughout a lifetime of service to the poor, Mother Waddles accumulated dozens of awards. Among the most prestigious are Michigan's Volunteer Leadership and Wolverine Frontiersman awards, the Sojourner Truth Award, humanitarian awards from the State of Michigan Legislative Body and the National Urban League, and the Lane Bryant Citizens Award. For many years, the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Detroit sponsored an annual Mother Waddles Week, focusing local attention on the importance of community service.
In 1968 Waddles received an invitation to President Richard M. Nixon's inauguration, and three years later was honored with a special presidential commendation. She has also served as honorary chair of the Women's Conference of Concern and was featured in the Black Woman of Courage exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the Walter P. Reuther Library.
In August of 1967, trucks and cars carrying donations of food and clothing from Mother Waddles's mission were among the few vehicles to brave the riot-torn streets of inner-city Detroit. Inside a crumbling church, Waddles distributed food to needy citizens, many of whom had not eaten in days. In the early 1970s, a haggard woman wandered into Waddles's mission, downtrodden and despondent, not knowing where to go or what to do. In a few minutes, Waddles had given her a job in the mission kitchen, and within weeks, the once despairing woman was holding her head up high. When a leper in the Philippines heard of Waddles's work and asked for her help, Waddles borrowed money from a local businessman and sent off a donation. "I couldn't do otherwise," she told Edson. "God knows no distance."
One of the keys to Waddles's success was her ability to identify with those she helped. "There, but for the grace of God, goes me," she told Davis. "It can happen to anybody. Your husband or wife leaves you, you reach 50 and lose your job, the bottle, I don't know what, but it can happen to anybody. Hungry people can be dangerous people—it's the best excuse to do the lowest thing." But Waddles's motivation came from something much simpler and more profound. "I was born," she told Davis, "with the desire to love people."
Waddles died on July 12, 2001, at her Detroit, Michigan, home. She was 88. Detroit's mayor, Dennis Archer, told the Detroit News, "Mother Waddles loss is Detroit's loss. She was an icon to this city, having helped more people who have been in need and touched the lives of so many who have been down and out." Her mission continues to operate to this day.
Detroit Free Press, February 16, 1990; September 25, 1994, p. 1C.
Detroit News, July 13, 2001.
Ebony, May 1972.
Essence, October 1990, p. 48.
Jet, July 16, 1990, p. 24.
Life, March 21, 1969, pp. 87-88.
Michigan Chronicle, October 3, 1990.
Newsweek, May 1, 1972, p, 123.
People, August 20, 1990, p. 9.
Reader's Digest, October 1972, pp. 175-78.
Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission, www.motherwaddles.com (January 31, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the PBS television documentary Ya' Done Good (1990).
—Caroline B. D. Smith and
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