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Broken by alcoholism, 'small-town boy' finds path to redemption

'A lot of times, we think that money is the solution ... You need to let the people tell you what they need,' says missionary who has poured heart and soul into Cambodia's people
Kevin Knight, 61, just returned to his hometown of Collingwood after spending years as a missionary serving the poor in Cambodia.

A path through addiction led to Kevin Knight, now 61, turning to missionary work in Cambodia, hoping to make the world a better place for people living in poverty.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Scotland, but we moved to Collingwood when I was two and a half.

I went to Mountain View Elementary School, and Collingwood Collegiate Institute.

Q: What did you do after high school?

A: I worked at the Shipyards for about a year. At that time, we went on strike. So, I ended up going back to college in Kingston. I took business at St. Lawrence College.

I got bored with being broke, so I started framing houses with my friends. My uncle used to own a construction company, so ever since I was a small kid, I helped him out.

I got involved with plumbing. I worked my way up until I was a mechanical foreman in high-rise construction. I did that in Calgary and British Columbia, mostly.

Q: Where did life take you after that?

A: Actually, down the wrong road.

I became a functioning alcoholic, I guess you could say, for my whole life. I got into some drugs. I had 45 guys working for me, and I was in a high position, but it still took me down.

I ended up going to a Christian recovery centre. I became a Christian. It changed my life.

Q: In what way did it change your life?

A: It changed my perception of what was important in life. I had money. I had toys. There was no meaning behind it. I was searching for that purpose.

I started interning with the mission Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor in the downtown east side of Vancouver, so right where I had been using drugs.

I was helping people get off the street. We would invite people off the street to stay in our house with us. I would share my own journey with them. It can be very hard to get into a recovery centre.

Part of my internship was going to Asian countries. The ministry is about living simple, and living with the people.

At the time, my church had three guest speakers from Cambodia who spoke about it. It was very impactful to me. I knew the history of Cambodia but they were telling me stories about the people.

I was doing research on slum evictions in Cambodia and I asked if we had anyone on the ground there.

I was told they didn’t, but they’d like to.

I went to Cambodia in 2009. I was supposed to go for one month, but I had strong convictions. I stayed for three months. I lived with a host family in the slums.

I learned the culture, tried to learn the language and built relationships with them.

I think, too often, we want to fix a problem. We see it. A lot of times, that help isn’t needed. Sometimes, it’s even detrimental to the community.

Because I had a justice focus, I got involved in justice groups in Cambodia. I spent a lot of time with a group that was under threat of eviction. We stayed with them, just to bear witness to the atrocity.

One night, when I was there, the police in riot gear cordoned off the whole area and sent workers to demolish the place.

At 6 a.m., they started firing tear gas into the community. There were people right behind them with bulldozers and backhoes, destroying their homes.

I’d seen the aftermath of evictions, but it was the first time I was right on-site.

It was devastating.

One minute, I’m in tears. Another minute, I’m praying. The next minute, I’m lifting up someone’s home with them so they can grab a couple of belongings. Kids are running around looking for their parents. I was trying to connect families. I took video evidence of what was happening.

It changed everything there.

When I finished my three-month service, I moved there and joined the Cambodia team. It took me almost a year before I came back.

I still work with the community. I just came back last month.

Q: After working in Cambodia for 12 years, what brought you back to Collingwood?

A: My mom fell and broke her hip. She lives in Collingwood.

I came back to take care of her this month. She’s 87.

Q: How does it feel to come home again?

A: It feels really good. My wife and I are thinking about retiring here. We have a seven-year-old daughter.

It’s changed a lot. The majority of (the change), I think is fine. I think they’ve overdone the waterfront area a bit. I love the town. It reminds me of Niagara-on-the-Lake a bit.

It’s a mix between small town and a nice downtown.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

A: When you’re a missionary, you never really retire.

I’d still continue on with the missionary from here. We have 55 kids in school there that we support, and their families. Our focus is to grow the ministry there.

Q: When you look back on these experiences, are there any lessons you’ve taken away you want to share?

A: A lot of times, we think that money is the solution. Money is needed, but it shouldn’t be the first thought.

What changed my attitude a lot, was when I first learned the true definition of compassion. It means ‘to suffer with.’

You have to develop a relationship with people. The poor live with this day-in and day-out. You live with them the way they do so you understand the poor better and what they’re going through.

Groups would come and visit the poor area with a mission to feed the poor. They would bring rice, or fish sauce – common staples.

What they don’t understand is, even in a poor community, there’s an economy. By giving out rice and food, the five businesses that sell food in that community are essentially, out of business. You have to think about the whole situation. That doesn’t always happen.

You need to let the people tell you what they need, not tell the people what they need.

Q: Is there anything else you want people in Collingwood to know about you?

A: It’s weird. I always point the focus away from myself. (laughs)

I am just a small-town boy who has seen and experienced the highs and lows of life.  

The pursuit of the material gains in this world left me empty and searching for some meaning in this broken world we live in. After surrendering my life to Christ that meaning became clear to me and led me to serving the poor and less fortunate in Cambodia. Knowing everything I do in life brings life positive change to those in need makes me more joyful than I could ever be in any other pursuit.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 15 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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