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CBN.com San Quentin has been host to some of California’s worst criminals. For over 150 years, it’s earned a reputation as the state’s oldest and toughest prison. San Quentin contains California’s only gas chamber and death row for condemned inmates.
San Quentin is also the workplace of Chaplain Earl Smith.
“There’s a reason why every guy that’s in prison is here,” he says. “They didn’t just show up here. As long as you keep that in mind, the setting is just the setting.”
Chaplain Smith has ministered in this setting for two decades. He’s seen inmates come and go and has developed an approach to reach as many as possible.
“First of all, I try not to find out why they’re here,” says Earl. “I’m not really concerned with why they’re here. I think my job is, from the day they arrive, prepare them to leave.
“The thing I’ve learned early on in this ministry is that you’re incarcerated way in advance of ever arriving in prison. There’s something that incarcerated you and caused you to be bound to the point that you would come into a man-made facility. That’s the point I start with.”
Earl reached his breaking point eight years before he became San Quentin’s chaplain.
“Probably from the time I was like 11 years old until I was 19, I was involved in drugs and gang involvement,” he says. “Basically I got involved in it because I thought that was fun. That was exciting to me.”
Until one night when Earl had an unannounced visitor.
“A guy knocked at my door and says he had come to pay me my money. He owed me some money for awhile so, and he brought another guy with him that I didn’t know. The guy was there to kill me. It was like a contract. He stood over me [and] shot me.”
As the shooter emptied his gun, Earl’s dedication to a life of crime reached its destructive climax. He had been such a menace to the neighborhood that many were content to just let him die… even the police. Finally a neighbor called an ambulance.
“When my father came in, he brought the doctor back and he asked, ‘How bad is he?’ And the doctor said, ‘He’s not going to make it.’ I looked up, my dad had grabbed the doctor, and he said, ‘Doctor, you better do what you do best, and I’m going to go do what I do best.’ My dad walked away to go pray.
“I was in this room by myself, and then this voice comes in and says very clearly, ‘You’re not going to die. I have something for you to do. You’re going to be a chaplain in the San Quentin prison.’"
Earl wasn’t sure what to make of this strange encounter at the time. But he was touched by God and miraculously able to leave the hospital with only minor injuries. Throughout the ordeal his father never left his side.
“I remember my dad said, ‘You’re a rebel, but you’re God’s rebel. He’s going to use you for something.’”
Over the next several years, Earl got an education and prepared for the ministry. In July of ‘83, he indeed became the chaplain of San Quentin prison. After only five months on the job, Earl came face to face with the man who had shot him eight years before.
He says, “A lot of times we don’t realize how long we carry things. We think we’ve released them but we haven’t released them -- we’ve just pushed them back.
“When I saw the guy, I realized that I still hated him. I was angry with him. I remember walking down the tier and the devils says, ‘There he is. You can tell someone, and they’ll do something to him.’”
Earl walked down the tier and suddenly began to cry.
“I got back in front of the guy and said, ‘I need to thank you, because God used you to get to me.’ It was the hardest thing but when I said it, that’s when the burden was released.”
That forgiveness was a turning point in Earl’s life. Since then he’s thrived as the prison’s chaplain. He’s also the team chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and the Golden State Warriors.
“The thing that’s interesting about prison and in working with athletes, it’s just men. They all wear numbers. There’s one segment that makes a lot of money for what they do. But at the end of the day they have some of the same conflicts in their lives; they have some of the same difficulties.”
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