McKnight, 82, founded the church on the corner of Fenwick and Eve streets in 1963, but didn’t plan it that way.
He had been an evangelist and had hoped to continue to travel and preach the gospel, said local musician Eryn Eubanks, recalling the story she heard while growing up in the church.
“There was this one lady by the name of Thelma Warner. She just really felt like there was a calling for him to stay in Augusta and be pastor of a church,” Eubanks said. “She told him that and she was right.”
She said McKnight and his family have always been very special.
“When he talked to people, it didn’t matter who they were, how old they were or what kind of background they had, he always made you feel important, always made you feel special, always made you feel loved,” she said.
Under McKnight’s leadership, the church reached out to the community around it, expanding to include a Harrisburg Family Life Center to offer programs to young people and seniors.
McKnight continued to serve its residents as the neighborhood around the church changed from mill-connected residences to a blighted neighborhood to a community under revitalization.
Longtime Harrisburg resident Butch Palmer said McKnight’s influence was strong when his Bible Deliverance Temple congregation lived in the neighborhood, but it waned as they moved away.
Eubanks, however, commended McKnight for keeping the church in the community he committed to serve when other churches followed the members of their congregations.
“One thing that really said a lot about him is when a lot of churches had started to move out to Columbia County or a better neighborhood, they stayed,” she said.
The Rev. Melvin Ivey, the pastor of Greater St. John Baptist Church, said McKnight embraced him as a new pastor in the neighborhood 17 years ago.
“He had a gentle spirit,” Ivey said. “We had some real conversations; we talked about stuff that other people would shy away from.”
Ivey said McKnight helped him grow as a pastor and deal with the challenges of a congregation.
“He and I talked and he said, ‘We understand one another, but people in the pews don’t,’ ” Ivey said. “You want the fellowship with the people, but the fellowship, they can’t get beyond themselves.”
Mayor Deke Copenhaver expressed condolences to McKnight’s family and friends and said McKnight’s “commitment to serving his community and particularly his beloved neighborhood of Harrisburg was an inspiration to all he came in contact with, and to me personally.”
Copenhaver said former Commissioner Matt Aitken’s successful effort to name a Greene Street bridge over the Augusta Canal for McKnight was an appropriate gesture.
“I’ve always felt that his name being on that bridge was tremendously appropriate, as he spent his life building bridges in Augusta,” Copenhaver said.
When the bridge was named in 2012, McKnight remained optimistic that Harrisburg was turning around “for the better.”
The family will receive guests at noon at Bible Deliverance Temple. A Celebration of Life will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, with the Revs. Dr. H. Kelly McKnight, Charlotte McGee-Guinn, Joshua O’Conner, Russell Paine and Martin O’Connor officiating.