“Praise is your answer to every sorrowful moment that you have,” Knowles said, as he weaved elements of his own life into his message.
“I look at where God has brought me from and I’m here to tell you if He did it before, He’ll do it again,” he said.
He has indeed come a long way.
The Deerfield Beach native is the first black to serve as chaplain in the 98-year history of the Broward
Sheriff’s Office (BSO). In that role, he is responsible for meeting the spiritual needs of the BSO’s 6,000 employees and 4,000 inmates, along with their families.
Sheriff Scott Israel appointed Knowles, 64, to the post in February at an annual salary of $84,999.
On April 12, Knowles’ career reached a high point when he served as the Florida House of Representatives Minister of the Day in Tallahassee.
“It gave me the opportunity to offer prayer for not just those in attendance but also the governor and even the president of the United States,” he said afterwards.
Knowles is especially passionate about mentoring youth, remembering how his uncles and neighborhood preachers reached out to him growing up.
He has served as a community liaison and mediator with Broward County Schools, counseling students in conflict resolution, as well as director of the Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed Neighborhood Initiative Program, a skills training program for teenagers.
He is a consultant on upcoming juvenile justice legislation to state Rep. Gwyndolen “Gwyn” Clarke-Reed, for whom the program is named and who recommended him for Minister of the Day.
She describes him as humble, relatable and dignified.
“He’s not a person who’s pushy,” said Clarke-Reed, who has hired one of Knowles’ two daughters as a legislative aide. “He’s just a person who listens and tries to do the right thing.”
Israel echoes that sentiment.
“The fact that he’s African American and can relate to that community, that’s a plus but it had nothing to do with his selection,” said Israel, who ran for election last fall on a platform of inclusivity. “Not only is he about God but he’s about community and he’s about friendship.”
Knowles agrees with the sheriff.
“I may be black but I’m not just the black chaplain,” he said. “I’m the chaplain for all the employees at the Broward Sheriff’s Office.”
Knowles grew up in then segregated Deerfield Beach where blacks knew it was dangerous to be caught after dark on the east side of Federal Highway. On Sundays, he and his family walked a mile “hand-in-hand, looking like little ducks in a row, marching to church down Dixie Highway.”
The Vietnam veteran, who served with the U.S. Navy, spent 22 years working with UPS. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Theology from Logos Bible College in Jacksonville, and a master’s in Theology and doctorate in Ministry from the Evangel Center for Religious Studies in Fort Lauderdale. He has a second doctorate in Ministry from Logos Christian College and Graduate School in Jacksonville.
In 1989, Knowles founded Emmanuel Christian Center Ministries Inc., a modest Deerfield Beach church where members and first-time visitors alike are greeted with a warm hug and a “God bless you” welcome. Linda, his wife, leads about 50 congregants in get-up-out-of-your-seat gospel singing.
One of 10 children, Knowles grew up poor. He was 6 or 7 when his father abandoned the family. As the eldest boy, he eventually assumed the role of father and provider during a racially segregated period in Broward.
He remembers that while growing up and serving as a father figure to his siblings, his mother insisted that her children respect their absent dad.
One day, a stranger called to say his father, William H. Knowles, needed the family’s support. By then, the elder Knowles had been absent for 40 years. The family did not know he had been living in Key West all along.
Knowles immediately shared the news. “I found your husband,” he told his mother, Willie Mae Knowles, then he drove to Key West.
He and his wife helped his father recover from major surgery and he helped him reconnect with the family.
William Knowles died nine years later, still never explaining his absence.
The experience illustrated Knowles’ philosophy as chaplain.
“My main concern is to be there when there’s a need, to give comfort when it’s asked for,” he said. ”I don’t know the relationship between you and your family. So I come and I offer words of confidence.”
His admirers said it’s an approach that works.
He “provides everyone in his community with the hope that if you’re educated and spiritually led, you can accomplish anything that you set out to do,” said Bernard Adams, a retired Deerfield Beach public works operations manager.