Keeping Hope Alive

updated 05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/2000 01:00AM

The chic hotels of Puerto Vallarta loom in the distance like the Emerald City, but here on the edge of the Mexican resort lies a bleak world unknown to well-heeled turistas. On a humid morning in late March, Jeff Knight, 29, and his 16-year-old sister Jenny walk somberly through the area's poorest enclave, a cluster of shanties arrayed around the city dump. The air is thick with flies and a sickening stench as residents pick through a mound of garbage the size of several football fields, scavenging for cans, bottles, even scraps of food. Overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable squalor, Jenny breaks down. "I don't know why Mom and Dad had to die for this!" she says, weeping. Consoling his sister with a hug, Jeff says softly, "Mom and Dad thought it was worth it."

Their parents, Joe and Linda Knight, were pastors of the Rock Church in Monroe, Wash., 45 minutes northeast of Seattle. For the past two years the Knights had run Mission to Mexico, a charity they founded to assist families living around Puerto Vallarta's dump. It is a forgotten corner of the city, ignored by government, untouched by the affluent nearby resort, and served only by volunteers from a small local church, with donated resources. But in just a few visits the Knights had begun making a difference in the area. Largely through donations from their 500-member congregation, mostly people of relatively modest means, they raised about $50,000 for the desperately poor community. Hardly an impressive figure by American standards, it was enough to help feed and clothe about 100 families living near the dump.

Moreover the Knights gave residents a once-unimaginable commodity: hope. Beloved for their warmth and selflessness, the Knights were revered as heroes. Now, sadly, they might be considered martyrs. Flying home Jan. 31 from one of their mercy missions, Joe, 54, and Linda, 52, died with 86 others when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles in a crash that is still unexplained. Jeff spent the bleak days after their deaths alternately grieving and mulling over the future. An associate pastor at the Rock Church, he ultimately knew there was but one choice: He and his wife, Melinda, 27, must carry on his parents' work. "This is what they taught us to do," he says. "When the moment comes, you have to seize it. We had to go forward."

Now co-pastors, Jeff and Melinda have taken over Mission to Mexico, traveling to Puerto Vallarta in March to make clear, he says, "that just because Joe and Linda Knight are gone, that doesn't mean the family is going to turn its back on the mission." Along with his assurances, Jeff brought part of the now-$35,000 memorial fund established in his parents' name. The money is earmarked to help build a school and community center near the dump, a project Joe and Linda had begun planning on their final trip. Apart from taking on his parents' flock and their good works, Jeff and Melinda have also assumed guardianship of his sister Jenny—trying to fill a void that perhaps no one can. Five days before they died, the Knights had celebrated their 32nd anniversary, and Linda, an aspiring writer, had just finished a novel based on her romance with Joe. "They had to die together," says Linda Gorman, 42, a friend and church member, "because they couldn't have lived without each other."

The couple followed a tortuous path to missionary work. Both raised in the Monroe area, they loved riding horses, and met as teenagers while competing at an equestrian event. "He rode up on his white palomino, and it was love at first sight," says Gorman. "She called him her Knight in shining armor." The Knights wed in 1968, and shortly thereafter Joe enlisted in the Air Force. Based on Okinawa, he intercepted Soviet and Chinese radio signals during the Vietnam War. His bride was not about to stay behind. "Mom bought a one-way ticket to Okinawa," says Jeff, and spent Joe's hitch as a Red Cross volunteer. When Joe was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in 1970, the Knights returned to Monroe.

Linda worked in drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation, while Joe ran a motorcycle shop, then hired out as an ad sales rep for a local radio station. There, something happened that would change his and Linda's lives forever. In June 1978, Joe was sentenced to four weekends in jail for theft and forgery, after he and other employees had accepted unauthorized gifts from advertisers. "My mom was ready to leave him," recalls Jeff, who was 7 at the time. But on the night of June 3, his parents—Linda at home and Joe in his jail cell—started praying. Neither had been at all religious, and they were amazed that, independently, they had sought peace in prayer. "Mom said, 'Something has happened to me,' " Jeff remembers. "Dad said, 'Is it Jesus?' She said, 'I think so,' and he said, 'Me too.' "

The Knights' faith played an increasing role in their lives, and by 1984 they began holding Bible-study classes at home. That year they founded their nondenominational Rock Church, meeting first at a school, then in a converted warehouse and finally in their own small sanctuary. Salaried through donations from their growing congregation, the Knights were soon able to give up their day jobs—Joe was a subcontractor—to preach full-time. Toward the end they regularly held a "cowboy church," delivering sermons from horseback in the barn of a 16-acre ranch they bought about a year before their deaths. The Knights displayed a talent for fund-raising: Apart from their work in Mexico, they would give more than $800,000 to the needy over a 15-year span. One favorite cause was the Matthew 25:36 House, a nonprofit Monroe charity that provides food, clothing and other services to families of prisoners. Its executive director, Rosaleen Wilcox, presented the Knights with a posthumous humanitarian service award on behalf of Simon of Cyrene Inc., her group's umbrella organization. "Some people are uncomfortable with this type of charity, but they were not judgmental," says Wilcox, who knew Linda well. "She was dynamic, vivacious and full of hope."

Jeff, at first, felt no religious calling. "I didn't want to be in the ministry," he says, noting that Joe warned him that the work was demanding and required a great deal of self-sacrifice. But Jeff did aspire to follow his father's example in another way, by joining the Air Force, hoping to become a fighter pilot. But a high school knee injury—he'd played basketball and baseball—kept him from enlisting, and instead he studied construction management at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. Before graduating in 1995, Jeff took time off to help out with his parents' church and charity work. Increasingly drawn to the ministry, he became a youth pastor after earning his degree. By that time he'd married Melinda, once his sister's babysitter. Trained as an exercise physiologist, she worked as an employee fitness specialist at Boeing, then quit to join the church staff as daycare director.

The project in Puerto Vallarta got its start in October 1997 when Pastor Saúl González appeared on a cable show the Knights had launched on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. González told them about the community living around the dump and how his tiny church could only do so much to help. Moved by his story, Linda flew down to Mexico in early 1998 and spent a month in Puerto Vallarta, giving González a hand. "She said, 'I want to go to the places where the average American will never go,' " recalls González, 53. "So I brought her, and she began crying."

What she saw were children covered with dirt and flies, open sores on their arms and legs as they helped their parents forage through trash heaps. Appalled, Linda shot the scene on video to show the congregation back home. "I've watched a 4-year-old girl fight a buzzard for a sandwich," she says on the tape, while standing atop a mountain of debris. "I've seen a boy with worms coming out of his mouth. I have chosen my life project, and it is in a garbage dump."

Linda went home resolved to bring basic hygiene to the shanties and raised $3,700 from friends and congregants to build two showers. She persuaded the owner of her favorite Puerto Vallarta hotel, Paradise Village, to donate the use of a water truck to supply the showers and also give residents clean drinking water. In the next two years, she and Joe collected funds for food, clothing, school supplies and other needs—money they either wired to Mexico or brought in person, as when Linda arrived in January 1999 with $6,000 to buy a van so González's church could deliver food to the dump. The Knights' final visit focused on their most ambitious project yet: a $50,000 school-clinic-kitchen where residents could learn English and computer skills. "They wanted to build the compound, then go to dumps in other areas," González says. "They were coming back in March."

Linda went down ahead of her husband on that last trip, staying a week, before Joe joined her in time to mark their anniversary with a quiet beachfront dinner at Paradise Village. "They were enjoying one another's company," says Rosa Soverigno, 63, who owns the hotel with her husband, Graziano, 74. "Every moment of the day they were happy, holding hands." When they checked out Jan. 31, Joe and Linda left a box of chocolates for the Soverignos, along with a note reading, "See you in three weeks." Heart-breakingly, they were nearly kept from flying home, says Jeff, because Joe's passport had expired. But somehow they persuaded airport officials to let them board Alaska Airlines Flight 261 anyway.

That afternoon, Jeff was in a recording studio cutting a CD with his Christian rock band—he plays bass, Melinda the keyboards—when a church volunteer called. "He said, 'I don't want to alarm you, but a plane has just crashed coming home from Puerto Vallarta,' " recalls Jeff. "I felt an incredible emptiness." More than 2,500 mourners packed Monroe's high school gym on Feb. 12 to memorialize the Knights. "There was no purpose," Pastor González says of the crash. "I know God always has a plan, but I am not sure it was the best plan." In fact, Joe had a plan too. Before his last trip, Joe told Jeff he hoped his son would someday replace him as pastor. "He had a lot of confidence," Jeff says, "in who I was becoming."

Determined to fulfill his parents' mission, Jeff, along with Jenny and Melinda, flew Alaska Airlines to Puerto Vallarta on March 27. "Let's carry on the torch," Jeff said, rallying the three dozen church volunteers who also made the trip. On the third day of his five-day stay, the entourage headed for the dump, first stopping to dispense milk and bananas at an elementary school, just as Joe and Linda often did. "Before," says teacher Maura Ruiz, 24, "you had children coming to school hungry, with headaches, fainting in class. Now they come wanting to study. They don't have money, but they know they can have breakfast." Later, at the dump, Jeff asked Graciela Padilla, a pregnant 17-year-old mother of two, if she remembered his parents. "Yes," replied the young woman. "We all miss them because they were the only ones who used to come help us here. I was starting to wonder if anything might have happened to them." Taken aback that she didn't realize Joe and Linda had been killed, Jeff watched her eyes fill with tears when he broke the news. "God," she said, "will give them a special corner in heaven."

That evening, it was Jeff whose emotions overcame him. Preaching at Gonzalez's church, he declared, "Our God was not defeated when Flight 261 plunged into the ocean." Then he broke down in tears, along with the congregation. For 15 minutes the church resounded with wails and sobs. Trying to maintain a semblance of calm, Melinda stoically played the piano. At one point a white-haired woman approached Jeff and hugged him. "Mi nieto," she said. "My grandson."

The next morning, Jeff lay on the same white beach where his mother loved to soak in the sun. He hadn't been sure what he would find in Puerto Vallarta, but he would leave profoundly energized by the outpouring of emotion from all those touched by his parents' work. Having bought the property for the new compound with $18,000 raised by the church and the memorial fund, he plans to return this summer to start building. "I lost my mom and dad because of their ministry," Jeff says. "I ought to have every reason to hate it, but I'm inspired." Wistfully, he adds, "I wish I could have had another 30 years with them. We're hurting, but they fulfilled their dream."

Richard Jerome
Leslie Berestein in Puerto Vallarta

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