By Stef Coleman
In my move from rural Tennessee to Chicago, I lost my Dede’s cookbook. I think it was the last copy not yet claimed by friends and family. Somehow in packing boxes and shipping containers, chasing cats into carriers, and coercing my husband to go through drawers, I lost it. That loss wasn’t the same as losing my favorite T-shirt or breaking my daughter’s snow globe. I waited and waited, hoping to find it. Finally I told my mom six months after our move, and she gasped.
I tried to placate her with some truths: that I’d memorized the recipes I liked, that it was probably still in a box somewhere, that I could likely get another copy, or that I could copy someone else’s and ignore their stains. It was true. I knew my great grandfather’s chili recipe by heart, my grandmother’s stew, and my aunt’s crepes.
My mom’s mom, Dede, died when I was a budding senior in high school. It was a quick descent from a cancer diagnosis in January to her death in June that year. We had just months to make our peace and say goodbye. Afterward, we processed our grief in different ways—in silence, in anger, in disbelief, or in work. Aunt Peggy set out collecting family stories and collating beloved recipes into a cookbook in Dede’s honor.
The format was simple but useful—history in the front, food in the back. It was a trove of family stories, things I’d heard all my life coupled with new stories. It made the cookbook not just useful but interesting too.
History All Around Me
As I read through the historical cookbook, I became obsessed with faith and family. Where had we come from? What had my great-great-great grandparents done? What did that mean for me? Over and over again, I was confronted with a history of simple, fervent faith. My family has always been involved in church, which isn’t surprising given that I grew up in the Bible belt surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends close enough to be family, but the extent to which we were involved in church surprised me.
I learned that in August 1801, when the Cane Ridge revival kicked off the Restoration Movement in Kentucky during the Second Great Awakening, my great-great-great-something grandparents were present. It was an event I’d studied, and suddenly learning that family was there was jarring. Maybe the Holy Spirit filled them until they barked like dogs, as others had done there, or maybe they were quieter about their renewal—but regardless they were part of the greatest camp revival in American history. When they returned to their Alabama home, it was with the new fire of revival and transformation kicking in their bellies. They had no idea the family legacy they’d create.
In the months following this old-fashioned camp revival, seven Christian churches were established up and down the Alabama/Georgia line following the meandering line of the muddy Chattahoochee River. My ancestors attended one of these churches, starting a tradition of faithfulness that emphasized apostolic Christianity and a back-to-the-basics approach that appealed to people across class, gender, and race.
When some of the first Christian colleges were established, my ancestors sent their children to attend, even the daughters. Generations of women were encouraged to study, to learn, to stretch their minds because there is no fear in equality. It was into this tradition that my grandmother Dede was born in 1930 as the eleventh of thirteen children. She was the only child to not graduate from Cincinnati Bible College, though she attended classes for two years. She said later she just lost interest and wanted to dig her hands into something different. It was in college that she met my grandfather.
They had a whirlwind courtship, Jim, the outgoing preacher-to-be, and Dede, with her vibrant smile but shy laugh. My grandfather came from Atlanta, the oldest son of the first gasoline pump owner. He’d been offered a chance to play professional baseball but turned it down to go to college. He told me once, “Preaching lasts, but playing baseball is for the young men.”
They were married in 1950, and he pastored a new church in south Atlanta, Southwest Christian Church. He spent the next 37 years as the head pastor, shepherding it from 50 people to over 700. During that time, he helped expand Atlanta Christian College, helped support Emmanuel School of Religion in 1965, and sent his daughters to Milligan College. His commitment to the movement was strong.
But until that cookbook, I’d never registered how this history was all around me, permeating me like rainwater into an aquifer. From copies of The Lookout on the racks at church, to sermons about unity and apostolic Christianity, to baptisms by immersion, faith became part of my DNA just like my freckles and curly hair.
Two Centuries of Faithfulness
It was only in opening that cookbook for the first time that it became clear to me how much power there is in two centuries of faithfulness. Power in a standing commitment to a movement that values unity and commitment to Christ. Power in something that is passed down generation by generation. Power in being people who trace long roots.
This for me is the heart of the Restoration Movement, the appeal to individual Christians to live at peace with everyone while living out their faith in big and small ways. A movement whose essence was characterized by sayings like, “In essentials unity; in opinions liberty; in all things love” and “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.” More than ever, these values are mightily important in our divisive times. We are not just our political affiliations, our nationalities, our ethnicities, our racial makeup, our genders, or our socioeconomic status. When we come before the cross, we are stripped of these externals and known only by our hearts.
Outwardly our roots go deep into the land, into our families, into our history, but ultimately they’re only rooted in one thing—our God who loved us enough for the cross to become a symbol, not of despair but of resurrected hope.
History breathes life. It gives me hope for the future of our family, the future of the church, and the future of our society. I can look down into the past and see the untold multitudes who came before me, who believed that one life could make a difference.
That one life had made a difference.
History in the front, food in the back. Connecting the people of my past with the sustenance of the present. Now when I speak I know I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I’m lucky to know their names.
I never did find my cookbook and had to copy my mom’s food-stained pages. But eventually my stains will replace the faint copy of hers, and when that happens I’ll have my heirloom to help my daughter plant her own roots.
Stef Coleman has a Masters of Divinity from Emmanuel Christian Seminary and works as Small Groups Director at Community Christian Church in Chicago, Illinois.