ADKINS, Texas – the line of cars stretched miles by the time Gage-Laubach and his two friends approached a small church outside of San Antonio, where they heard a barbecue was held to raise money for the victims of last weekend’s mass shooting at a church in the nearby town of Sutherland Springs.
The trio marveled at the line: Vehicles were still a back-up of about 10 miles (16 km) early Saturday evening, hours after the Smokin’ Corners BBQ Ministry opened its doors in Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church in Adkins.
The organisers announced the event online a few days earlier and expected to feed maybe a few thousand people. But within an hour, the group walked out of the 5,000 pounds of meat volunteers continued smoking overnight. A quick post on social media, and more than 6,500 pounds of extra meat arrived: turkeys, chickens, slabs of beef and pork. The cars — gifts — continued to arrive.
“I don’t know if we’ve slept in the last three days, but we felt a calling,” said Mike Ritch, a professional chef, who is co-founder of Smokin’ Angels BBQ Ministry in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast. Ritch estimated that tens of thousands of meals would be served by the end of the night.
The effort raised money for the families of the more than two dozen people killed when a gunman opened fire last weekend at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a small community of about 15 miles (24 km) in the south-east of Adkins. It was the worst mass shooting in the history of Texas.
“They are lost now, and not many can take that away. But when they see it, they will see that their neighbors care,” said Labauch, who, together with his friends set up a 30-foot Texas flag that bolt on to the car park. People honked and stopped to take pictures and selfies with the flag before you get on the line, or to sit at the community-style folding tables.
Locked in a small shed behind the line for the barbecue, a handful of people, counted the donations and money from the serving of meals. Ritch said that he was planning to give the amount of money raised on the ministry’s Facebook page on Sunday.
Plates were priced at $10, but Ritch said dozens of people came through the line and paid more for the to-go orders. He said all the money goes directly to the families.
“There was one man who came through the line and ordered four plates, and he gave us $400,” Ritch said, grinning. “There is not only a story of generosity worth telling. It is all of you who came. The people who sent donations from California or Washington, and a man who came from Georgia. He made it all the way to Beaumont and then called for directions to bring us his donation.”
Ritch, 34, and his wife, Paula Reinecke, also a professional chef, started the ministry in September after volunteering during the recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey. The two several organizations are trying to volunteer to cook or serve food, but were turned away. They eventually reached the organizers of the Operation BBQ Relief, which provides meals to displaced persons and emergency personnel in emergencies.
The couple helped serve 79,000 meals in three days of volunteer work in Houston during the flood after Hurricane Harvey. When they returned to Adkins, the couple wanted to continue to work, so they started with the ministry.
“We saw what we could do with the barbecue. And we want our own ministry to be more than just disasters. We want to help people throughout the year,” Ritch said.