One week in late January 1988, the Rev. Brad Smith was trying to come up with something to liven up “the long prayer” on Sunday.
The Pastoral Prayer, that is, as it is officially known at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church here, where Smith is associate pastor. But he knew the congregation called it something else. Aware that many parishioners would be particularly antsy on this particular Sunday, a line came to mind that would use that fact to grab their attention:
“As we enjoy the Super Bowl game, help us to be mindful of those that don’t even have a bowl of soup to eat.”
That was all, just one line in a litany of pleas for intercession on a variety of issues. It hung in the air of the church sanctuary for a moment and was gone.
But it wasn’t gone for Smith. Like a tune heard on the radio, it stuck in his head, and he kept thinking about how that simple, pun-driven thought could be translated into meaningful action. He was still thinking about it in 1989 when he returned from a spell at seminary. He mentioned it to some members of the Spring Valley youth group, and one day a few of them dropped by after school to kick ideas around.
From the beginning, they wanted their effort to be bigger than their own church and denomination. Remembers Smith: “One said, ‘I know somebody who goes to St. John Neumann (Catholic Church),’ and somebody else said they’d call somebody at another church.”
The following January 1990, they were ready. On Super Bowl Sunday, they kicked off the first “Souper Bowl” at 22 churches in the Columbia area. Kids stood at the church doors after services with soup kettles, asking parishioners who planned to watch the game to drop in a dollar apiece.
When all the participating groups called in their results, they had collected $5,700. The money was distributed to various charities in the community, with each church picking its own preferred beneficiary.
And that was just the beginning. They did it again the next year, and the next. And each year, it got a little bigger, raising a little more money for such groups as Habitat for Humanity, the Harvest Hope food bank, soup kitchens and ministries.
By the fifth year, it was a lot bigger. In January 1994, 1,700 organizations in 49 states - churches representing 30 denominations, synagogues and even a sorority - raised $275,000.
This year - Souper Bowl VI - they’re shooting for half a million.
The Souper Bowl, once a mere mustard seed of a pun, is a big, national deal now. Its Advocates Committee, in addition to African Methodist Episcopal Bishop John Hurst Adams of Columbia, includes the likes of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Habitat founder Millard Fuller, University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty, and even some representatives of the world in which that other Bowl takes place - Tom Landry and Sam Wyche.
But while the reach is national, the focus is local. The money raised by each participating church or other organization stays right in their own communities, helping local people. And while a lot of high-powered older folks have climbed aboard the bandwagon, most of the work still is done by high school students. They’re the ones who on Jan. 29 will man the soup kettles and the phone bank over at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, where the results will be called in from all over.
And that, perhaps even more than the tangible good done for the needy, is one of the most important things accomplished by the Souper Bowl. As Brad Smith puts it, the project not only teaches kids that there’s “something more than the football game going on on Sunday,” it also counters “all the messages of hopelessness and despair that young people are exposed to.
“This is something that tells young kids that they can make a difference in a positive way.”
Chris Kip agrees. He was a high school senior when he was one of the handful who got the Souper Bowl going. “It was a really small thing” at first. “We all went downtown to answer phones,” but there were only 21 calls to take.
This year, it’ll be more like a couple or three thousand, and Chris, who was heading back to Davidson College this weekend, hopes to be back to help receive them.
Not so long ago, Chris didn’t know what he wanted to do, but now he’s studying for a career in social work. “I’m sure that the Souper Bowl had something to do with it,” and he particularly credits the one who had the original idea: “Brad had a lot of faith.”
The bottom line, as Chris said, is, “I guess that dreams are possible.”
xxxx Take the “Souper Bowl Challenge,” as they’re calling it this year. It’ll only cost you a buck - although you’re perfectly welcome to kick in more.
Brad Warthen is an associate editor of the editorial page at The State, Columbia, S.C.