Earl Smith

Earl Smith

   Reporter: Earl Smith was sentenced to San Quentin, one of America's most notorious prisons for over two decades, and prayed with dozens of death row inmates. To make a positive difference, Earl started a baseball team, a choir, and even played chess with Charles Manson. In his book, Death Row Chaplain, Earl shares these true stories about bringing hope inside the walls of what some called the most frightening place on Earth. 

   Interviewer: I'd like to welcome my friend, Earl Smith, to 700 Club Interactive. How are you, buddy?

   Earl Smith: I'm doing well, good to see you.

   Earl: I was a gang member, drug dealer, and was in the process of collecting some drug money. He refused to pay so I decided I was going to do something to him. He got a gun, gave it to someone and told the guy to kill me. And so they came to my house and the guy shot me six times and left me for dead. I went to the hospital, and while I was there my dad came into the emergency room, and he asked the doctor how bad was it. The doctor said I was going to die. My dad grabbed my hand, and said, “I'm going to do what I do best and you have to pray with me.” While he was gone, the voice of the Lord came and He said, "You're not going to die. I have something for you to do." And that something was being a chaplain. At that point I laughed. The doctor came in, and I said, “If I tell you where the bullets are, will that help?” He looked at me and said no, but as I started to point to where the holes were, the bleeding stopped. A few days later, I left the hospital.

   Interviewer: You heard the voice of God telling you, "You're going to be a chaplain at San Quentin?"

   Earl: I clearly heard it. In fact, when God called me to the ministry, my pastor was also my father-in-law. He said, "Okay, what did God tell you?" I said, "The only thing He told me was that I would be a chaplain at San Quentin." So I told him that in 1976 and 1983 I was hired as a chaplain.

   Interviewer: So you're in your late 20's, you're at San Quentin as the chaplain. Tell us about the amazing encounter you had with an inmate from your past.

   Earl: Well, as I said, in '83 I started at San Quentin. That was in July. In December, we were giving out Christmas cards and I had an area that I was assigned to. I was giving cards on the second tier. I'm walking down the tier and as I get to a certain cell, I looked in and it's this guy who shot me. I had only seen him only twice in my life: the night he shot me and the day we went to court. I didn't testify against him. I wanted him on the streets so I could kill him. I looked down at him and said, "What's your name?" He tells me his name and he stepped away and I realized that I didn't forgive him, because I still felt the same pain. I walked away from the cell asking God, "Why did You bring me back to this place to make me see him? Why now?" As I walked down the tier, I had to pass him on the way back and asked God to bless him. Sometimes we have to pass back by those things that are troubling us. As I walked back by his cell, I looked at him and said, "I need to tell you something. I need to thank you because God changed my heart." These were the hardest words I had to say, “I forgive you.” He released His peace, the same peace that I felt that night when God talked to me. The voice of the Lord said, "You're going to be a chaplain."

   Interviewer: How did he receive that?

   Earl: He wrote a letter to the warden that very night, saying that you have to get me out of prison because your chaplain is going to have me killed. He wrote that letter because of who he thought I was. He remembered what I used to be like. And he couldn't believe that I was changed. They called me in and said we have a letter here from an inmate that says he shot you, and you're going to have him killed. I was on probation which simply meant that they could release me from working, just tell me go home, or you're not hired. But instead, what they did after they read the letter, was to put him on a transport and had him transferred to another prison so I could stay in and work.

   Interviewer: There are many amazing things about your life. You're also or have been the chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers, currently Golden State Warriors, and you work for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. So you spend some days preparing inmates for execution, and then days later, you're with these millionaire athletes. These are totally different challenges, how do you relate to both prisoners and exceptional athletes?


   Earl: Well, stress is stress, pressure is pressure. Guys who are professional basketball players, baseball players, and football players face stress related to performance. In many cases, they come from the same areas as guys in the prison. There's a separation. Some of the best athletes in the world are in prison. If you ask most professional athletes, they'll tell you someone was better than them that are in prison, that didn't make it. And there's the difference. So for me to relate, I have to find out, "What was the difference? What about you? What made you succeed and someone else didn't?" And what I also like to tell jail people is that to get into prison, you're somewhat of a success because there are all these road blocks along the way. And there are stop signs, and you keep running to get to that place.

   Interviewer: So you spent day after day in San Quentin by choice. And the prisoners obviously, don't have that choice. Were there days you said, "This is too rotten in here. It's too evil. It's too dark, I want out."?

   Earl: I think the day that I felt that the most was the day that a guy named Tank died in my arms. And that's when I retired. There were days when, before that, when you saw the execution, you started asking. You know, what's really important God? What's really going on? Why are we here? You know, I don't want to see anyone die. I don't want to see the pain associated with that. I don't want to have nightmares about what I've seen, but it was when Tank died. He was in my arms and yelled out while he was in the bathroom next to my office and said, "Chap, help me." I came out to him and he grabbed me, collapsed in my arms, his last words was, "Chap, don't leave me." I'm holding him and the MTA comes by and says, "Man he just took somebody's bad dope. He'll be okay." And I realized he hadn't taken somebody's bad dope. The guy had an aneurysm. He was sick. And I had to ask myself, "What was the value of what I was going through?"

   Interviewer: You also brought great hope, though. You started the baseball team, right?

   Earl: My favorite sport was baseball.

   Interviewer: You started a choir there? You brought hope to a lot of men over the years. And in such a dark place with so much racism and violence, it had to wear on you personally. I don't know. Did you have someone in your life that you could go to for help as you're helping everybody else?

   Earl: Well, I have two. I have my father who's my best friend. And he was always someone that I could talk to, confide in and share. And also, I have my pastor, Donald Green, who also came into the prison every Thursday and ministered with me. He wasn't just a pastor at this large church, but he was also a pastor that came and ministered in the prison. So those two men were probably the most influential in my life.

   Interviewer: Earl, we thank you for being here. The book is called Death Row Chaplain. I encourage you to pick up a copy. It's a phenomenal read. It's available wherever books are sold.


Hearing His Voice Testimony

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