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A Super Bowl party with a giving twist

Volunteers serve food to the homeless during a Super Bowl Sunday event billed by organizers as "a day to feed and clothe our homeless neighbors."
Volunteers serve food to the homeless during a Super Bowl Sunday event billed by organizers as "a day to feed and clothe our homeless neighbors." (Jeff Barker/Baltimore Sun)

Like many Super Bowl parties, this one featured vats of steaming chili. But there were also donated jars of Gerber baby food and long tables piled high with winter coats, sweaters and scarves.

In fact, the scene on the chilly Baltimore street corner seemed miles away — at least in spirit — from other fetes tied to the big game.

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If Super Bowl Sunday celebrates conspicuous consumption, this event — billed as "a day to feed and clothe our homeless neighbors" — was designed as the antidote. A banner behind the serving tables read: "Love Thy Neighbor Event."

"It helps me to remember that people actually care, because on a day-to-day basis a homeless person is frowned upon," said Suzanne Lucas, who was among hundreds of homeless people who lined up to sample a half-dozen styles of chili from makeshift tables in a grassy area on the corner of Centre Street and Fallsway.

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Players and coaches from a youth football organization, the MTS Terps, volunteered to help serve the food. A dozen families from a George Washington University alumni group showed up in vans bearing nearing 60 pounds of chili. A representative of a Washington-area Islamic center arrived with crackers and bread.

The organizer, Asma Hanif, said she got the idea years ago when family members would organize traditional Super Bowl parties. "I told them if you're going to sit all day and do nothing, let's at least do a kind act beforehand," said Hanif, the founder of Muslimat Al-Nisaa, which provides shelter for Muslim women and food, clothing and health services for the general population.

"I said, 'We're going to serve chili to the homeless in the community. I picked chili because you can't really mess up chili. Even burned chili tastes good. Then they can come back and watch the game," Hanif said.

She has held the Super Bowl-themed event for more than 20 years, but this is only the second time in its current location.

"Although we're giving them chili and clothes, the most important thing we're giving them is hope," said Akeda Pearson, an educational consultant who attended. 'We're letting them know that they do matter and that there are people in the community who do love and care about them."

The area was full of "'No Loitering' signs, but Hanif said she couldn't imagine police harassing the organizers of an event for the homeless.

"Make sure that the park stays clean!" she hollered to volunteers. "I don't want any trash left."

In its 49th year, the Super Bowl has practically become an indulgent American holiday. Even the "cheap" tickets for this year's game, in Glendale, Ariz., were going Sunday for more than $11,000 on the ticket-resale website StubHub.

"You could buy a car for that," said Lucas, a former nanny who said her parents died about a year ago "and I ended up on the streets." She is staying at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, which provides homeless services to more than 275 people.

Her Super Bowl memories, she said, are of "a big family event in Columbia. That's the only time I watched football. I made tons of food with my mom."

She has a bed and a computer at the Weinberg center but said, "If I'm really hungry I will cave to panhandling."

If it seemed an odd day to celebrate community service, that was the point, said Ammar Hanif, a University of Maryland graduate student and Asma Hanif's son.

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"We all go out and buy up the chips and go to our Super bowl parties. Everybody likes sports — nothing wrong with that," he said. "But what are we doing that's antidotal to that — something that's going to balance that out?"

Hanif, who is Muslim, wore a kufi cap beneath a hood and an ankle-length thobe.

"I thought about just wearing my jeans or sweat pants but I decided to wear some more traditional garb so when people come by, they can actually see these are Muslims that are doing this," he said. "I want to help to try to dispel some of the myths about Islam. You have various groups that try to say Islam is about hate. The evidence is actually far from that. This is really what being Muslim is all about."

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