Airplane-crash victims sowed the seeds for son's ministry

Jeff Knight preached his best sermon not long ago. Eleven people got saved.

The sermon was so good, he says, because he could see his dad sitting in the front row, plain as day, his arm propped up on the back of the pew and his face drawn up into "that look" - the look that said, "Son, you gotta slow down. You gotta pace yourself. Preachin' is hard work."

Other times, it's been his mom's voice he hears, Knight says, his voice choking and his hands beginning to tremble.

"Don't back up on me now," she warns her only son.

Knight is not about to back up. At 29, he's moved full-bore into his parents' ministry - preaching on Sundays, taking up their mission work in Mexico, trying to stabilize a shaky youth ministry, tying up all the loose ends that came undone when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 from Puerto Vallarta fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Joe and Linda Knight, pastors of The Rock Church Northwest in Monroe, were among the 88 people who died in the Jan. 31 crash. They had been in Mexico to check up on a ministry to the poor, Mission to Mexico, they began there two years ago.

The Knights are the kind of people who see God at work in their lives. If Jeff Knight, his 16-year-old sister, Jenny, and his wife, Melinda, had been paying attention, they surely would have seen the signs that their lives were about to be turned upside down.

In October, for example, Melinda's day-care job evaporated, leaving her time to concentrate on U.R.Y., the "rippin' " praise band she and Jeff use to attract teens to The Rock's Wednesday-evening services.

And in January, when the elder Knights went to Mexico, the horses they had boarded at their 18-acre spread outside Monroe had been moved elsewhere until their return. It meant one less thing for their survivors to worry about.

And a few days before Joe Knight left for Mexico, he and his son had driven home from a pastoral conference in Las Vegas, using the long drive to go over the elder Knights' vision for the church for the next 10 years. Because they had talked about it, Jeff Knight was able to step into his parents' path without hesitation.

If they had been watching at all, they wouldn't have missed the strongest sign, Knight says. His parents often appeared on TBN, a Christian cable network. On their last interview, they had joked that when it came time for them to go, they would just climb on a Harley and ride into the sunset.

It didn't turn out like that, of course.

But Jeff Knight is sure he knows what his parents' last moments were like. His mother would have been standing in the aisle of that struggling jet, he says, preaching, helping frightened people to find God before crossing to the other side. His father would have been writing a note to him, his wife and his sister, telling them to carry on.

"That's the way they were," Knight says. "I know them so well. A lot of people met Jesus that day through my mom."

It was Linda Knight who started Mission to Mexico. She had done a television interview with the pastor of a Mexican ministry. He had invited the Knights to Puerto Vallarta to visit his church and see the work they were doing with the poor.

"Take me to the place the Americans won't go," Linda Knight told him. And he took her to a garbage dump where 100 children spent their days fighting with buzzards for scraps of food. They had no fresh water and no way to keep themselves clean.

That was two years ago. Last spring the Knights had raised enough money to build a concrete shower. By January, when the Knights went for their last visit, the Mexican congregation was supervising a feeding program for 1,500 children. Most of the food came as leftovers from the airlines that ferry winter-weary tourists to Puerto Vallarta's sunny resorts.

"Whenever Mom went down, she'd tell everyone on the plane not to eat their meals because the kids needed them," Knight says.

Joe Knight managed the nondenominational Full Gospel church he and Linda had started 16 years ago. The congregation has grown from a few people who met in their home to about 300 who meet in a rented cedar-stained church on Monroe's Main Street.

A sign out front says the church is up for sale.

It was, Jeff says, but now the plans for a new church building have been put on a back burner, and church leaders are trying to negotiate a new rental agreement.

Until he was so abruptly promoted to senior pastor, Knight was in charge of the youth program, Total Velocity Ministries.

Ironically, the plane crash that took Joe and Linda's lives has given their ministry a push. The congregation is asking Jeff Knight, "What can we do? How can we take the church to the next level?"

He answers with his dad's 10-year plan.

The Mexico mission will go forth with proceeds from a book Linda finished not long before she died. It's about her life with Joe. They met and married young. The marriage hit a rough spot after about 10 years; in 1978, Joe was sentenced to four weekends in jail for stealing from his employer, radio station KRKO-AM. He found God one night in the Snohomish County Jail. Linda had a similar conversion the same night.

The book is an unveiled look at their lives, Jeff Knight says, but it's "too raw for the Christian bookstores," so it will be promoted for the secular market.

Knight and 34 members of The Rock will go to Mexico in a couple of weeks to manage the feeding program for a while and give the congregation there a break.

He'll take with him $9,500 from a memorial fund set up in the Knights' name. The money will be used to buy land and build a school where parents and children can learn English. When they graduate, they will be able to work for the hotels and restaurants that serve Puerto Vallarta's tourists.

"I'm really prepared for the ministry," Knight says, "and I'm committed to it."

That's not to say he is over the shock of being propelled into the job of senior pastor so abruptly. "I'd kind of hoped it wouldn't happen until I was out of braces," he says wryly.

"My life should be just a wreck right now. But it's not. The church is just exploding. It's going really well. But I'll be going along, preaching, preaching, preaching. And then all of a sudden I'm bawling, bawling, bawling.

"There are days when I just want to be their son again, to hear them tell me I'm doing it right and to have my mom hug me. But I can remember what hugs felt like. I realize that this is a marathon and not a sprint."