OWENSBORO—A Kentucky church plant could rightly be called the most unique one in the United States.
Survey the congregation and you see people who are are deaf, blind, autistic or have cerebral palsy. Gospel Community Church is scheduled to launch services in a new building by Thanksgiving, becoming what is believed to be the first deaf and special needs church in the country to build its own building with its resources rather than those of a sponsoring church.
The story of how God has miraculously provided funds to buy the property, then resources to renovate the building brings tears to the eyes of its pastor, Danny Hinton, as he reflects on God's goodness. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles have vanished as a core group of staff, members and volunteers have prayed extensively for God to work mightily in their midst.
How it began
Hinton started learning sign language at age 3 when his family contemplated fostering or adopting deaf children. When Hinton's parents took sign language classes, he went with them and the deaf parents of the instructor took him aside and taught him sign language. It was useful because he had deaf friends in his school years, as well as deaf foster children in his neighborhood.
While a student at Western Kentucky University, he was working for $4.25 an hour at a pizza place until he took a test to be certified as a deaf interpreter, resulting in him making $45 an hour. He worked professionally for 23 years as a sign language interpreter, and whenever a church learned he had that skill, he was asked to go on stage and interpret.
The Hintons moved to Owensboro and began attending Pleasant Valley Community Church, but Danny remained quiet about his interpreting skills. Quiet until he encountered a little girl named Nykayla. "She's a little African-American girl who has Downs Syndrome and is deaf—I began to see that she would watch and try to pick up what she could. I met her parents, and I signed in the service the very next Sunday. Nykayla was just latched—she actually had access to the gospel. In some respects, this church—Gospel Community—was birthed out of interpreting for Nykayla.
On Super Bowl Sunday in 2015, services were launched for GCC with 12 people attending. It proved to be a memorable day, setting the tone for what God would do with that ministry.
"I was halfway through a very simple gospel message when a deaf individual stood up and stopped me. He said, 'I need this. I'm a sinner.' So we had our first individual come to faith in Christ that day."
After the service, Hinton noticed the man who had just been saved was communicating with a deaf and blind woman. "Here's this brand new Christian sharing the gospel with a woman by tactile signing (placing one's hands on another person's hands to communicate by manual signs). She's reading his hands—he's sharing the gospel, and all of a sudden she begins to weep and confess her sins and tells of her need for a Savior. So on day one, two individuals in this unreached people group came to faith in Christ. We baptized them the next week, and within a couple of weeks we doubled to 24-25 people attending.
"A few weeks into our launch, blind folks showed up. I had no idea what to do with that. So I asked the question, 'Why would you come here?'
"They expressed to me 'Your church is not just shooting for accommodation—you are fully including folks that often feel marginalized and left out. That's why we would like to come.'"
That discussion led Hinton to respond, "We want to do this well. I need to know how you feel marginalized and how you need to be fully participatory in church and worship." God began to turn our hearts not just for a deaf church, but a church to seek out marginalized populations. Blind folks began to talk and individuals with cerebral palsy in wheelchairs began to show up. All of a sudden we are a gathered church of individuals that just by the nature of disability doesn't care about skin color. We are naturally diverse with lots of different abilities—it is a large population of marginalized, oppressed, special needs populations, deaf folks."
How do you plant a church like this?
Hinton had one looming question: how do you plant a church like this? Church planting books don't address how to proceed when most of the individuals in the church aren't able to fund it because they are on disability.
The "church" had started in a Sunday School classroom at Pleasant Valley, then moved to a youth room—but as numbers grew, so did needs for wheelchair and accessibility space. Heritage Baptist Church offered a chapel at its Christian school, allowing an accessible stage to be added. Then they pulled out the pews, testifying to their belief in the church and its mission. "They loved us well," Hinton noted.
But there was one looming concern—church leaders didn't want to fall into the situation that faces other deaf-focused churches. "The majority of those meet in Sunday School classrooms and in larger hearing churches.
"Most deaf churches don't have their own building and they don't have a place to do ministry from. What you see is they become very inward focused, most worried about keeping their service open, trying to survive.
"We were preaching that deaf people aren't called to reach deaf people with the gospel—they're called to reach lost people and they're called to go to the nations. Deaf people are responsible for 'hearing' people hearing the gospel. We saw a yearning for these people to be missional.
"They wanted to have a neighborhood; they wanted—like in Acts 1:8—a Jerusalem. We wanted a neighborhood to pour into. We began to pray. Would God would provide us with a place, a home of our own."
Soon the worship pastor called Hinton, asking him to look at a building that was for sale. Hinton didn't see it as a possibility.
"We only have $6,000 in the bank," Hinton said. "Why in the world would we go look at a building—we're a 3-year-old church plant with special needs populations with tithing of about $60 a week. We have no business looking at that building." The worship pastor wouldn't accept that answer. He told Hinton, "Let's just go look. Let's go dream a little and see what's out there."
The building was priced at $148,000 and would need about a half million dollars of renovation. A contractor friend told Hinton that the building next to it would be more feasible. The problem, however, was that it didn't appear to be for sale.
The contractor told Hinton, "Maybe we should just pray," so they sat in the parking lot of that building and prayed that God would lead them to where He wanted them to locate.
They soon learned that the building was owned by Catholic Charities of Owensboro. "It was one giant open warehouse full of bedbugs and clothes and mice. It had been around since the 1980s just as a big shed." They were told that it was for sale for the amount owed on the building, and that the diocese would be "ecstatic if a church would buy it."
But Hinton was apprehensive. "There's no way we had the money for this."
But in the following weeks, a few donations came in and a couple of investors called expressing their interest in the project. "Within five weeks we had enough cash to buy the building outright. I'd love to tell you all the names of the people who contributed, but every single one of them said they didn't want to be noted, but they wanted to see the gospel go forth in the community."
The purchase was finalized. Hinton observed, "It was unprecedented for a group of deaf folks in a special needs context, a cross-cultural multilingual church, in an impoverished area with no income, to purchase an 8,000-square-foot warehouse with no money and a plan to renovate it only by the power of God's provision and prayer. We bought the building and we thought if we had to swing hammers for 10 years, we'll swing hammers for 10 years and it'll happen in God's time."
The next major hurdle loomed with funding an $80,000 renovation. "We went to two banks that we had associations with and got the answer of 'no, absolutely not. You can't repay it. It makes no financial sense whatsoever.'"
Then a third bank was approached—a bank which had no affiliation to the church—and the loan was approved. "The good Lord said, 'yes,'" Hinton opined.
An unexpected major setback
Calls went out to contractors, telling them of the church's need to build a fully inclusive, accessible building that would be expensive to build. The church sought people to donate labor and parts, then it would draw on the loan. Two weeks into the project, the unthinkable occurred—the roof caved in.
It was during winter, and when Hinton walked in to survey the damage, he saw an inch of water covering the floor. "It was almost frozen, you could ice skate in there."
And it presented a crisis of belief for Hinton. "After three and a half years of part-time Bible college and seminary classes, 40 hours a week swinging a hammer and cutting concrete and saving money, after we baked cookies and did car washes and all those other activities, I was depleted and done. I didn't know how it was going to be possible."
He called a Christian roofing contractor and estimated the repair cost of the roof at $55,975. "It felt like a punch in the stomach. So I called everyone and said, 'We're done. I don't think we can move forward.'"
It was at that point that one of the lay pastors, Kenny Flaspoehler, a former missionary in Peru, offered this advice: "I'm pretty sure that at the beginning of this we were going to be praying and God was going to be providing. We need to get together and pray."
For four months—November, December, January and February of 2017—a circle of chairs was arranged in the big open warehouse. Every afternoon at 4 o'clock people gathered to pray. Sometimes it was two people, sometimes it was 20. "We just prayed that God would provide. We were willing and excitedly moving forward—whether God would have us just get rid of the building or whether He was going to build a church here. In four months nothing happened, not a hammer got swung. It was a time for us to cry out to God and pray."
Then contractors began to call. Coy Webb from the Kentucky Baptist Convention called Hinton and asked if snow had caused the roof to cave in. It was snow and ice on the flat roof that led to the cave-in, and Webb said KBC had natural disaster funds to help in those situations. Within a week, a fourth of the needed funds were received.
The roofing company said it would donate a fourth of the funds. Pleasant Valley and Bellevue Baptist both donated. "Before it was over with, we just had to come up with a very menial amount," Hinton said. "God had provided for us and work was back on. We began to swing hammers and volunteers showed up."
Then a call came in from a woman who coordinates a deaf ministry at a Nazarene church in Kansas City. She had a group scheduled to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, but wanted to make it a mission trip as well by helping with construction. "They pulled in with an 18-foot trailer—it was a load of senior citizens and deaf folks and individuals with cerebral palsy," Hinton recalls. "One lady who was in a wheelchair, was deaf and had cerebral palsy, looked at me and signed, 'What do you need?'" He replied, "Two concrete footers dug 2-feet by 4-feet," but thinking all the time that there's no way for her to do that.
"She grabbed a spade shovel and went to one corner and then to another. For a week she dug. When she'd fill a wheelbarrow, she'd lay the wheelbarrow across her lap and wheel it outside and dump it and wouldn't let a soul help her. But she dug the most beautiful footers you've ever seen. Planning and Zoning gave us a thumbs up because it looked absolutely fantastic.
"That group stayed for a week and then decided to give us the money that they were planning to spend to go to the Ark. Later they called us and asked us if they could come back in a couple of months to help.
"Bellevue Baptist sent 19 15-year-old girls. I thought, 'you've got to be kidding me.' But those girls worked. Sojourn Midtown sent its college crew from Louisville and painted all the blackout parts of our ceiling and did all of our drywall prep."
Stories of God's provision abound. A plumbing company donated all the plumbing fixtures and the installation. The owner of a handyman company stayed seven weeks and framed the building.
"It's literally just been a front row seat to God's provision," Hinton said.
Once the walls were up and wheelchairs could access the building, Hinton invited the congregation in for a look.
"I'll never forget it. People that are just as diverse as diverse could be, began to openly weep and thank God. And they just asked if we could get together and pray and thank God for His provision."
Once GCC had acquired its building, Hinton approached Olga McKissick at the Neblett Community Center, asking if a neighborhood service could be held there since it is three blocks from where GCC was locating.
She said it had not been the practice to allow churches to meet there, but she made an exception when learning that Hinton worked with the deaf community.
"She's a strong Christian, and she came in halfway through our first service. As soon as I said 'Amen,' she gave me a key and said we could continue to meet there. It has been an unbelievable experience for us." He noted the center has existed since the 1930s, teaching children in the neighborhood and offering a variety of programs and activities for children and adults.
Gospel Community's new location is in an area marked by desperation—from the back portion of its lot you see two government housing complexes, a homeless shelter, a suspected crack house and a house known for prostitution.
"We've had 17 homicides in the last 12 months," said Hinton. "There's gun violence here. We have drug problems here.
"What you have planted here, because of the history and background of the area, are people that function well without polish. It's a very grassroots, gritty group of individuals who thrive well taking the gospel into dark places. We've embraced being unpolished. If we come a few minutes off of what we planned, we're okay with that. You'll see individuals with tattoos. We've seen people come to faith that have a history of active drug addiction. We've had prostitutes come to church on Sundays.
One of a kind
"As far as I know, this is the first church in the country for the deaf—reaching special needs populations—that has ever been built under its own power. It's not attached to any other church or a ministry of another church—but God using the disabled people of that church to grow and build the church.
There was one built in Nashville, and I think it was built by posthumous gifts. It's attached to Brentwood Baptist Church and they're doing some pretty big mission work for the deaf and hard of hearing."
Hinton says he marvels at God's work involving GCC. "I never thought it was possible, and on paper it makes no sense at all."
But the pastor and congregation will be quick to say that with God, all things are possible. Hinton pointed to George Mueller, acclaimed orphanage founder in England in the 19th century. Mueller told about the morning when there was no food for the 300 children in his orphanage. But then a baker showed up with bread. A milk truck broke down in front of the orphanage, and the milkman gave the milk on that truck to the orphanage. God does provide and meet the needs of His people.