FLINT, Michigan — Hands move toward the sky. In praise. In exaltation. In communication. Here, it is easy to see the hand of God in motion. While welcoming to all people, Master’s House church formed in service of, and with a commitment to, the area’s deaf community.
It initially formed a decade ago as part of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Swartz Creek, before growing into a separate church called Master’s Hands Church and then merging with Lighthouse Church to form Master’s House Deaf Church earlier this year.
Leading the church is Pastor John Bienlein, 58, of Burton, who dreamt of being in the ministry since he was 12 years old. Initially, he planned to be a priest, even attending Catholic Seminary and attaining a degree in theology.
“It just shows that God has a sense of humor,” he laughs. “He takes me, who wants to be a priest, but made me a Baptist preacher.”
In 1982, Bienlein married his wife, one of three in her family who are deaf. When the two married, they decided — together — to learn sign language. The language came easily to Bienlein, whose grandfather had taught him to sign the alphabet as a child, and it’s easy to see now that everything in his life led him to Master’s House Deaf Church.
Genesee County is home to more than 19,500 people who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the 2017 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Home to Michigan School for the Deaf for more than 160 years, deaf culture has always been a part of Flint culture.
Coming to Master’s House feels like coming home, says Flint resident Annie Gaston, 67.
“When I was a girl, we would go to a Baptist church and the preacher would try to write some things. … The pastor wasn’t deaf and they didn’t have an interpreter,” she says. “They didn’t know anything about sign language.”
Only a few short months after joining Master’s House five years ago, Gaston was asked to come to the front of the church to help lead the musical portions of the service.
“I really love to sing for all the deaf and the hearing,” she says with a smile.
Providing opportunities for service and leadership is a key mission of Master’s House Deaf Church. Austin Rupert, 22, served as worship leader — a position that helped prepare him for his next career move.
“God really chose me to be here. I’ve been a worship leader here and that is really the opportunity God had for me,” he says. “Some of the songs I actually feel it matches my life and I can portray that in sign language.”
Rupert recently was hired by the Iowa School for the Deaf and will be relocating there.
Kirstan Loghry, 49 from Tecumseh, came to the church about five years ago after feeling called to establish a deaf women’s ministry in Michigan. Loghry also conducts one-on-one grief counseling and counseling for those involved in domestic abuse situations.
“God brought me to this church,” she says. “I just can’t imagine not being involved. My life would be so boring. I would feel empty if I didn’t have this.”
Bienlein said the church plans to add a clothing and food ministry to help those in need as well as a Veterans’ Day service and car shows.
“We started changing our focus outside the church and that’s really picked up some traction,” says Bienlein. “I don’t care if you’re deaf, hearing, white, black, green or purple. Everything we do is because of His grace and everything we do is for His glory. That’s our whole focus.”
Master’s House Deaf Church is located at 3242 Whitney Avenue, west of Ballenger Highway in Flint. For more information, check out the Master’s House Facebook page