Earl Smith has spent a good deal of his life behind bars--but not in the sense that he could have! During his formative years (actually, into his adult years), Earl Smith lived his life is such a way that he could have become a permanent guest of the California Department of Corrections at the notorious San Quentin State Prison. In Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable True Stories from America's Most Notorious Prison, he and co-author Mark Schlabach tell his story and the stories of the inmates he met during his twenty-three years as San Quentin's Protestant chaplain.
It takes a while to get to San Quentin. The first 1/3 or so of Death Row Chaplain dwells on Smith's story. He was a pretty bad guy, making some terrible choices. Drugs, dealing, crime, stereotypical street thug behavior marked his life. Finally, when he was nearly shot to death and somewhat miraculously survived, he turned to Jesus. Then he went to college to become a preacher and, well, drank, did drugs, and slept around. Like many, OK most, OK pretty much all of us, Smith didn't become perfect once he became a Christian.
He did have a passion for reaching prisoners with the gospel, though. Early on, he heard the voice of God tell him that he would become chaplain at San Quentin. Years later, he got the job. Few would be as well-suited for the job. He could relate the population. In fact, he ran into plenty of his old street buddies from Stockton, including the man who shot him.
The theme of forgiveness runs through Death Row Chaplain. When he first happens upon his would-be murderer, thoughts of revenge ran through his mind. Smith could easily have had him killed. But God gave him grace to forgive. That forgiveness set the tone for his ministry among the hardened criminals and death-row inmates he met every day.
Rev. Smith had a much more forgiving spirit toward his charges than I would be able to have. At times he seems almost flippant, with stories like, Oh, he raped some young ladies and killed some folks, but now he's a Christian, sings in the choir, and man, you should seem him hit the baseball! But really what he's saying is, Jesus met this criminal in the depth of his depravity, and now, in prison, he is learning to be a disciple of Jesus. Smith certainly does not condone crimes or rule out the need for prison. He writes, "A prison has to exist for certain people. Some are lawless to their core, and, even if given an opportunity to change into law-abiding citizens, they would turn down the offer." But he approaches every prisoner as someone needing the love and grace and forgiveness Jesus has to offer. As much as that may go against my human inclinations, I certainly can't argue against it from a spiritual perspective!
I admire Rev. Smith's work with the San Quentin prisoners. He has impacted not only the prisoners' lives, but their families' lives, and even the lives of the victims and their families. When the sheep and the goats are separated, there's no question that Smith will be counted among those who visited Jesus in prison. Well done.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!