Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable True Stories from America's Most Notorious PrisonFrom a former criminal and now chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors, comes a riveting, behind-the-bars look at one of Americas most feared prisons: San Quentin. Reverend Earl Smith shares the most important lessons he's learned from years of helping inmates discover God's plan for them.
In 1983, twenty-seven-year-old Earl Smith arrived at San Quentin just like everyone thought he would. Labeled as a gang member and criminal from a young age, Smith was expected to do some time, but after a brush with death during a botched drug deal, Smith's soul was saved and his life path was altered forever.
From that moment on, Smith knew God had an unusual mission for him, and he became the minister to the lost souls sitting on death row. For twenty-three years, Smith played chess with Charles Manson, negotiated truces between rival gangs, and bore witness to the final thoughts of many death row inmates. But most importantly, Smith helped the prisoners of San Quentin find redemption, hope, and to understand that it is still possible to find God's grace and mercy from behind bars.
Edgy, insightful, and thought provoking, this book teaches us God's grace can reach anyone—even the most desperate and lost—and that it's never too late to turn our lives around.
My Review: 8/10
Death Row Chaplain is a book about a man who is called out of drug-related crime and violence to become a chaplain at one of the most high security prisons in the country. His stories of men behind bars will challenge commonplace notions of those who commit crimes and what can become of them. It reminds us that God is powerful to work in all people, no matter our past.
Overall, this is a powerful testament to a God who acts on His own terms according to His own plans—a refreshing reminder that we often don’t get in typical American churches, with their carefully laid out plans and ministries. The stories of inmates and the chaplain himself—plus athletes, once he ends up being a chaplain to professional San Francisco teams—will have you facing God’s grace, repentance, unrepentance, darkness, and the light that can conquer all. It presents to you the degree of misery that this world can so easily give, but also the hope that can shine in the most dismal places.
I have only two criticisms of the book. Occasionally, I felt like the author was name-dropping, which may have just been my reading of it and not accurate of his intentions. This was minorly irksome and didn’t happen most of the time.
The second criticism was in the composition and framing of the book. I felt like I was going to dive into the prison ministry angle right away from the introduction, but instead we got a long tale of how the chaplain arrived where he was. This wouldn’t have bothered me at all if the setup of the book didn’t make me expect one thing forthcoming and get another. Overall, I’m glad to see that tale. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.
Also, after the first chronological chapters of the chaplain’s life, the various chapters and topics of those chapters didn’t seem to be put together according to any noticeable organizational principle. Some sort of cohesive organization and transition for the chapters would have increased the delivery of the whole.
Overall though, I recommend this book. For subject matter alone, I would give it a 10/10, but as a book, I will give it an 8/10 due to the way it was written and organized.