Hundreds of people gathered April 28 at Seawell’s to share a meal and honor a man who started a movement which has helped provide meals for millions.
The first Souper Bowl of Caring Tackle Hunger Columbia Luncheon included the awarding of the inaugural Souper Bowl of Caring Visionary Award, and all agreed the recipient was the logical choice. Rev. Dr. Brad Smith founded the organization in 1990, inspired by a prayer.
Smith was an associate pastor at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church, and on the Sunday of the Super Bowl, senior pastor Dr. Lamar Potts assigned him to deliver the pastoral prayer (the “long prayer,” Smith jokingly calls it). Smith’s prayer included “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat.”
With that simple idea, a movement was born. Smith found himself unable to get the notion out of his mind, and began looking for ways to do something about it. “It is about God’s provision,” he said at the luncheon. “There was the idea, but somebody had to implement it, and the young people were willing to do it.”
The high school youth group at Spring Valley embraced the idea and began collecting donations of money or canned food at their schools and at church. They invited friends from other churches to join the effort, and soon 22 churches were on board. They raised $5,700 that first year, and all of it went to local nonprofits for delivery to those in need.
That alone would have been an accomplishment to be proud of, but for the organization which became known as Souper Bowl of Caring, it was just the beginning. The effort went national in 1993, with churches and schools from 36 states participating. In 1997, a barrier fell. “All of a sudden this tiny little mustard seed was raising a million dollars,” Smith said.
Souper Bowl gained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 1997, and in 2002, with support from his family and from donors, Smith became the first full-time employee as executive director. In 2004, the NFL became directly involved, as Houston Texans owners Bob and Janice McNair came to support the movement.
“They’re people. They’re parents. They’re grandparents who God has blessed in mighty ways,” Smith said of the McNairs. “They see themselves as stewards.”
Souper Bowl has, through 2016, raised more than $125 million dollars to feed those who are hungry. All along, young people have been at the forefront. Spring Valley High School senior Caroline McManus serves on the organization’s National Youth Advisory Board.
“It was through this organization that I was able to get a glimpse of what I want my future to look like,” she said. “The idea that people as young as and even younger than me can make a difference in fighting hunger is unbelievable.”
Michael Hobensack, now a medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, is a former National Youth Advisory Board member. He said he might not have chosen medical school without his Souper Bowl experience.
“It was this organization which first showed me what it mean to truly serve others,” he said. “No matter how simple your service is, no matter how young you are… you can make a difference.”
South Carolina Field Director Sumner Bender said the focus on youth is a crucial part of the movement and will not be going away. “Educating youth about helping others is paramount in raising a generation of givers,” she said.
Smith’s daughter, Rachel, who grew up with Souper Bowl, said her father’s “vision has helped young people see they don’t have to wait for others to stand up and lead.”
So many lives changed, from those who received food to those who learned the importance of service by helping gather that food. All because of a simple prayer and a simple notion from a young associate pastor at a Columbia church.
Smith said it is no coincidence that the national movement had its genesis in Columbia. “This community is where it happened,” he said. “I do not think that was by accident. I absolutely think it was by the providence of God. I don’t think it would have happened in other communities.”
Smith was also presented with a resolution from Mayor Steve Benjamin and the Columbia City Council recognizing his accomplishments. More information on Souper Bowl of Caring is available here.