“Death Row Chaplain” by Earl Smith
“So, you’re reviewing the book that you should have written,” my wife said when I told her about being asked to read Death Row Chaplain by Earl Smith. Indeed, many of our experiences as prison chaplains—Smith at San Quentin State Prison in California and me at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton—are similar, suggesting that some universal truths are at play when it comes to the circumstances, challenges and opportunities for restoration implicit in incarceration.
Death Row Chaplain is the powerful story of a man whose personal redemption led to a phenomenal ministry. As is the case with many chaplains, Smith is a former criminal offender—in this case, a drug dealer—with a testimony of survival (he was shot and nearly died), repentance, and redemption. That in itself is a repudiation of the commonly held notion of “once a criminal, always a criminal.” Though such is not my personal testimony (to date, I’ve never been arrested or accused of a crime), the reality is that many of the most effective prison ministers are persons who have “been there and done that.”
In Smith’s case, the pattern for his ministry was set when, a few months after being hired at San Quentin, he came face to face with the young man who had shot him six times in an assassination attempt eight years earlier. The attempted “hit” had been carried out at the behest of a drug dealer who worked for Smith and was afraid because he owed Smith money.
As Smith writes, though the murder attempt miraculously changed the direction of his life, he hadn’t yet reckoned with the notion of forgiving his assailant. “At that moment, I realized that while eight years had passed and I had gone to school and preached … I had never truly forgiven my shooter.” Even more important, “Since I hadn’t forgiven Steven for what he’d done to me, I hadn’t yet healed from the episode, either.
“I knew that since God had forgiven me for my past transgressions, I needed to forgive Steven. As it says in Matthew 6:14-15, ‘For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’” Realizing that forgiveness was his only option, he faced the challenge head on: “’Hey, I want to thank you for shooting me,’ I said too softly for anyone but [Steven] to hear. ‘God used you to get to me.’”
“Hey, I want to thank you for shooting me,” I said too softly for anyone but [Steven] to hear. “God used you to get to me.”
Thus the foundation was laid for an important truth that was to be reinforced repeatedly during his ministry at San Quentin: Forgiveness is the key to healing, for perpetrator and victim alike. This maxim was never truer than on Death Row, where Smith ministered to the condemned, their families, and the next of kin of the inmates’ victims through 13 executions.
Of the inmates, he writes, “While the men who were executed at San Quentin during my watch were convicted of many heinous crimes, I found some of them to be souls crying out in emotional pain … I hope they saw me as someone who might be able to help them turn their lives around during their last days on Earth.”
For those left behind, particularly the victims’ loved ones, peace is no less important— though perhaps more difficult to achieve. In her best-selling book on ministry to the condemned, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean notes that for some, those who are executed “will never be dead enough” to bring peace to the survivors.
Yet, for those who are willing to forgive, peace can bring welcome relief. Debbie Morris —whose memoir, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, was written in response to Prejean’s book—serves as a case in point. In 1980, Morris and her boyfriend were brutally assaulted at the hands of Robert Willie, one of the Death Row inmates profiled by Prejean. A few days before the attacks on Morris and her boyfriend, Willie and an accomplice raped and killed 18-year-old Faith Hathaway, a crime for which Willie was ultimately executed.
Morris writes that for many years after Willie’s execution, she suffered from feelings of anger and depression, which she medicated with alcohol. Ultimately, however, Morris—who had become a Christian—was faced with a truth that “practically jumped up and smacked me in the face”: God’s willingness to forgive was available not only to her but to her assailant as well. “As uncomfortable as I still am at that idea,” she concluded, “I need to accept the fact that my human feelings won’t really matter when I get to heaven. If Robert Willie is there, it’ll be the same way I get there—only by God’s generosity and grace.”
It is this basic fact of the gospel—that God is just and the rest of us—whether convicted felons or not—are unjust, that impelled Earl Smith to minister in prison. The amazing thing, he writes, is that “even in a place of violence, racism, and despair, God’s love and mercy can still win the day.”
That in itself is sufficient reason to buy his book.
Samuel K. Atchison is a former prison chaplain. His current research project, “Ministry to the Poor in Changing Times,” examines the role of the faith community in addressing the issues that led to the Black Lives Matter movement.