WEST LIBERTY — It was just pinto beans and plain, white bread, but the meal nearly brought Sarah Prader to tears.
Her power had been out for four days, curtains were still blowing through her windows where glass used to be, and milk, butter and soda were sitting on the front porch rimmed by snow to keep cool.
Prader was grateful to receive a hot meal, grateful also to give what she could.
"God spared this house for a reason," said Prader, who had 15 people living in her two-story house, some of them neighbors she barely knew before Friday's tornado.
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"That's right," said J.C. Stamper, a volunteer with the Kentucky Baptist Convention disaster relief team who delivered Prader's meal and promptly engulfed her in a one-armed hug.
"This is not the end of the story," said Stamper, who came to help from nearby Ezel with his wife, Irene. "God is here with us."
Faith fuels all the convention's volunteers, said Karen Smith, known as "The Blue Hat" because, as the leader of the group who made and helped deliver Prader's meal, she is the one with a navy baseball cap amid a glut of volunteers wearing hats and shirts of banana yellow.
A car accident several years ago left Smith with such pain that there are days, she said, "I just can't get out of bed." But when she is called into action, somehow the pain goes away and she's able to focus on the complicated logistics of bringing hot meals to disaster areas, she said.
On Tuesday, the Baptist volunteers worked in a mobile kitchen and transformed 10 industrial-sized cans of beans, a couple of cans of ham and a healthy sprinkle of seasonings into more than 1,000 meals. The kitchen used in West Liberty can serve up to 8,000 a day and had served 5,000 meals on Monday, Smith said.
Ray Dalrymple, a veteran Salvation Army volunteer, said he always looks for the Baptists and their kitchens when he's in a disaster zone. He fondly remembers some BBQ he sampled at Ground Zero years ago.
"The Baptists have a way with food," he said with a smile.
Without a trace of irony, Smith said the most important ingredient is love.
In West Liberty, the volunteers were up at 5:30 a.m., rousing themselves from cots at their church base, which had neither electricity nor water. A cold but filling breakfast for several hundred was soon assembled and out the doors at the Pathways building, an outpatient mental health clinic turned kitchen-staging area.
The mobile kitchen was swarmed with yellow-shirted volunteers who made sure the temperature of the food was just right and that the metal surfaces were clean and sterile.
As the aroma of beans filled the air, edging out the smell of propane from generators, Denise Weber, a volunteer from Louisville, served as head chef, adding the spices, and stirring the beans.
Weber then led the delicate effort to transfer the steaming hot beans (180 degrees) into red coolers that, when stored just-so, can keep food at serving temperature for up to 12 hours.
"They have to do it just right," said Vera Duvall, who came from Monticello to volunteer with her husband, Dellard.
All kinds of volunteers came together at the Pathways building. Dalrymple said the Salvation Army had provided the food and, along with the Red Cross, spent the late morning and early afternoon delivering what the Baptists had prepared to folks like Prader, to volunteers in the field and to families still living in shelters.
But before the first serving went out, the entire group gathered in a prayer.
"The Baptists and the Salvation Army are going to pray together," Smith hollered, her white hair sticking out in wild tufts from under her blue hat as the day wore on.
"Does God know about that?" Dalrymple joked.
"He will in just a minute," said Smith, and with tears welling up, she led the volunteers from the three groups in a prayer to bless the food and all those they still have yet to serve.