ALBANY -- When Mark Knight brings his ministry to Autry State Prison in Pelham on the first Saturday of each month, prison officials have to bring in extra chairs for the overflow crowd.
Knight's not the only pastor to bring the word of God to prisoners at Autry, but there's this one thing about him that makes him stand out.
"These men react to me because they know I've been where most of them are coming from," Knight, pastor of The Commons nondenominational church at 3014 Sylvester Road, said. "I tell them: 'The only difference between you and me is that you got caught'."
Knight founded The Commons (initially called Living Water Christian Fellowship) with "10 in my den" some "six or seven years into my walk with God." That would be six or seven years after the minister asked God to deliver from his addiction to methamphetamines.
"People said I had a drug problem, but my only problem was running out," Knight said during a frank discussion of his former life. "Of course, even when I ran out, it wasn't much of a problem. Me and my partner were supplying meth to most of Central Florida."
When Knight found his rock bottom, which came via the hell of two solid weeks of withdrawals that left him barely able to get off the floor to go to the bathroom, he called out to God.
"I cried out, 'God, if you're real' ... because I just didn't know then; I hadn't been raised in a Godly home," Knight said. "I said, 'God, if you're real I need your help.'
"And he took the desire away. It was instantaneous. It's been 17 years now, and I have not had the desire to return to that life. Yes, I've faced temptation, but I give God all the credit. I've stayed focused on His kingdom, on His word, and that has delivered me."
THREE TIMES CALLED
While Knight gives God the credit for delivering him from his addiction, this most unlikely of pastors has upheld his end of the bargain.
"One of the greatest things that influenced my life is that God put me in a church where I could grow in my service," Knight said. "I came to understand that while the devil influenced me to make choices that led to destruction, God is able to use those choices to glorify Him."
The son of a truck driver who followed his father into the trade, Knight grew up in a broken home that made his descent into drug addiction a simple matter of time. He "ran wild" and hung out with the wrong crowd, eventually ending up strung out on methamphetamines.
He moved from Mississippi to Albany in 1987 and started his own trucking company, a business he eventually lost because of his drug usage. That didn't deter Knight, though, as he hooked up with a partner who helped keep him in a ready supply of the drug. The pair's trucking business, after all, centered around the drug trade.
As his family, which included a wife and two children, watched him sink deeper and deeper in his addiction, they offered what Knight called the best favor possible.
"My family didn't nag me," he said. "They simply told me 'You made your bed, now lay in it.'"
In the depths of despair, Knight sought to beat his addiction by desperately calling on God. And God delivered. Knight worked within his church, amazing those who had seen him at his lowest point.
"One of our church members came up to me one day and, out of nowhere, told me, 'God has laid it on my heart that you're going to pastor a church'," Knight said. "I blew it off, actually got a good laugh out of it. Me? A Pastor? I didn't think so.
"Then, a few months later, I was hauling a load of tires to Miami, Fla., and this sweet, 90-something-year-old black lady came up and told me she wanted to talk to me. I didn't know what I had done -- I thought I might have run her off the road or something -- but she walked up to me and said, 'The Lord has told me that you're going to pastor a church'."
Once, eerie. Twice, coincidence. But a third time?
"I was in Baltimore several months later, and this guy just walked up to me and said, 'The Lord wants me to tell you that you're going to pastor a church'," Knight said. "I had no idea what to think. I'd gone around to various places to give my testimony, but the thought of being a pastor never occurred to me.
"Then one night while I was giving my testimony at church, a man came up and asked me, 'When are you going to start your church?' I didn't even think about it, just said, 'I could do that, but who's going to sing? I can't carry a tune.' Turns out the guy was a musician."
A GATHERING PLACE
So Knight took the plunge. He and the 10 in his den founded Living Water Christian Fellowship, which opened its doors to all comers. To differentiate from the "five Living Water churches in Albany," the denomination changed the church's name to The Commons, an old English word for a gathering place.
"That's what we are, a gathering place," Knight said. "We welcome anyone from any walk of life. We don't care if you're rich, poor, black, white, a wealthy businessman or a homeless person. We welcome all to hear God's word."
The church's membership steadily grew to more than 200, and Knight's prison ministry became a vital part of his mission.
"There's nothing quite so amazing for me than to see the tears of these hardened men as they give their life to God," Knight said. "I'm humbled when they tell me how much the ministry in the prison has meant to their family that's outside the prison walls.
"That's why I have a soft spot in my heart for these hard men."
While Knight has had an incredible impact on the lives of many in the community, he doesn't take credit for his successes.
"As someone who works closely with Mark, I can honestly say this is one man who walks in integrity," Commons Praise Team leader Ron Massey said. "With all he faces on a daily basis, I've never seen this be about Mark. It's about God."
Massey should know. He came to The Commons only because he was living with his parents and they insisted that he join them for church services. He didn't want to be there, but he stuck it out. Without warning, he soon found himself as part of the church hierarchy.
"Our praise leader was retiring, and I said, 'God, what are we going to do for music'?" Knight said. "I didn't know Ronnie from Adam's housecat, but I heard that he was interested in music. I went to his house, offered him the opportunity, and he took the leap.
"Ronnie's an example of what God can do in a person's life."
So, too, is Knight. He's drug-free, the pastor of a vibrant church who is the last person he ever thought would be part of a ministry.
"I've seen so many lives changed in the 11 years I've been a pastor," he said. "I've seen people who were sticking a needle in their arms 10 times a day become functioning parts of the community. I've seen people with hepatitus C and cancer healed, and I've seen hardened criminals who were molded into men of God.
"I love this church, and I love being a part of the prison ministry at Autry. If God hadn't come into my life, I'd most likely be either there with them, strung out or dead."
The Commons holds services at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays and at 7 p.m. Wednesdays.