ADKINS, Texas (AP) — The line of cars already stretched for miles before noon when Gage Laubach and his two friends approached a tiny church outside San Antonio where they heard a barbecue was being held to raise money for victims of last weekend's mass shooting at a church in the nearby town of Sutherland Springs.
The trio marveled at the steady stream of cars still coming in early Saturday evening, hours after the Smokin' Angels BBQ Ministry opened its doors at Saint Mark's Lutheran Church in Adkins.
Organizers announced the event online a few days earlier and expected to feed maybe a few thousand people. But within an hour, the group ran out of the 5,000 pounds of meat volunteers stayed up smoking overnight. Another quick post on social media, and more than 6,500 pounds of additional meat arrived: turkeys, chickens, slabs of beef and pork. The cars — and donations — kept coming.
"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 co-founded Smokin' Angels BBQ Ministry after Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast. Ritch estimated tens of thousands of meals would be served by the end of the night.
The effort raised money for families of the more than two dozen people killed when a gunman opened fire last weekend inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a tiny community about 15 miles (24 kilometers) southeast of Adkins. It was the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
"They're lost right now, and not much can take that away. But if they see this support, they'll see that their neighbors care," said Labauch, who along with his friends unfurled a 30-foot Texas flag that billowed over the parking lot. People honked and stopped to take photos and selfies with the flag before heading into the to-go line or to sit at the community style folding tables.
Locked inside a small shed behind the line for barbecue, a handful of people counted the donations and money from serving meals. Ritch said he planned to reveal 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 to-go orders. He said all of the money will go directly to the families.
"There was one guy who came through the line and ordered four plates, and he gave us $400," Ritch said, grinning. "There's not just one story of generosity worth telling. It's everyone who came. It's people who sent donations from California or Washington, and one guy 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 called multiple organizations trying to volunteer to cook or serve food but were turned away. They eventually reached the organizers of Operation BBQ Relief, which provides meals to displaced people and emergency personnel during disasters.
The couple helped serve 79,000 meals in three days of volunteering in Houston during the flooding after Hurricane Harvey. When they returned to Adkins, the couple wanted to continue that work, so they began the ministry.
"We saw what we could do with barbecue. And we want our own ministry to be more than just disasters. We want to help people year round," Ritch said.
This story has been altered to correct the name of the Smokin' Angels BBQ Ministry, which had been erroneously referred to in one instance as the Smokin' Angles BBQ Ministry.