He was raised in a single-parent home in a low-income housing project in Chattanooga. His mother lived in those projects 26 years and raised five children. The oldest brother was killed in an automobile accident while trying to elude the police.
Darryl Smith never experienced many of the basic, foundational family experiences that so many of us take for granted. “I can never recall us getting into a car and going out to eat,” Darryl says. “I cannot recall sitting down and eating as a family. We never went on a vacation. We never did anything together.”
The older boys in his neighborhood taught him that being a man meant sleeping with as many girls as he could. He likes to say that “the first father I ever knew was me, when I became a teenage father.”
Like many of his friends, he served a term in prison for selling drugs. Unlike many of his friends, he is now out of prison, and is alive.
And sometimes Darryl hears a soft, whispering voice in his mind. “You’re a ghetto kid, and you’re always going to be a ghetto kid,” the voice tells him. “That’s how you were born, that’s how you were raised, and that’s how you’re going to die.”
He knows that voice is lying.
“It was just infatuation”
Darryl credits his participation in sports with keeping him out of too much trouble as a teenager. He was a star athlete in football and basketball, and received a scholarship to play football at Knoxville College, though he only lasted there a week before leaving school.
Toward the end of his senior year of high school, he began dating Gwen Neal. Unlike most of his female relationships, this one lasted. Darryl returned home from his brief stint in college, and soon afterwards joined the army. He and Gwen married the following summer.
“We definitely were not ready,” Gwen says. “We were very immature. It was just infatuation. When you get married, you think of this little fairy tale—living in a little cottage, a man who sweeps you off your feet. That’s all I was thinking at the time.”
Naturally, the fairy tale did not last long. Since both of them had grown up in single-parent homes, they had never seen how a husband and wife should behave. In Darryl’s mind, loving his wife meant having sexual intercourse as often as he could.
During his three years in the army, Darryl mostly lived the lifestyle of a single man—spending his evenings in bars and clubs, drinking, coming home late. He had absolutely no idea how to resolve conflict and build a relationship with Gwen, so it was easier to avoid her.
After they moved back to Chattanooga, both Gwen and Darryl made some key decisions which led to a turning point in their marriage. Gwen went to see an evangelistic film at her sister’s church, and realized her need to receive Christ. Meanwhile, Darryl found a good-paying job with United Parcel Service, but he noticed that many of his old friends were making a lot more money selling drugs. Figuring he could solve his financial problems pretty quickly if he brought in up to $10,000 per week, he decided to follow the same path.
Darryl’s choices—and Gwen’s vocal opposition—led to ongoing tension in their home. Two weeks after their son Elliot was born, he told Gwen he wanted to end the marriage. He took his clothes and moved back home with his mother.
By the time their divorce was finalized in 1989, Darryl was living a fast, rich lifestyle. But it didn’t last long. Returning from Atlanta one day with a $20,000 stash of cocaine, he and some friends were stopped by police. A search of the car revealed the drugs, and Darryl ended up with a prison sentence of ten years with possibility of parole after four.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Darryl says today. “It began to bring me to a relationship with God.”
“You won’t get me twice”
Many men spend their lives running from God, and begin to think about Him only when they find themselves in a jail cell with nowhere else to run. And so it was with Darryl. With nothing else to do or think about, Darryl began reading his Bible and attending prison chapel services.
At first, he was motivated mostly by a desire to show prison officials that he could become a changed man with the help of religion. He had been conning people all his life, and now perhaps he could con God into helping him. But to his surprise, God’s Word began to speak to him. “Even though my motives were wrong, God’s motives were that He loved me and was drawing me unto Himself.”
He had attended church for many years as a child, but had never perceived what it meant to be a sinner. All his choices, all his failures, were exposed in the light of God’s holiness, and he understood why Jesus died on the cross—for his sins.
He fell to his knees in his cell and cried out to God. “I had tried everything,” he says. I had money, I had girls, cars, clothes. I needed to give my life to Christ and accept him as my Savior and Lord.”
Darryl began taking Bible correspondence courses and listening to Christian radio programs. “I was so hungry for the Word. Even in prison there is a lot of temptation, a lot of opportunity to make money selling drugs. God began to change my desires.”
During this time Darryl also began calling Gwen. She was understandably skeptical when he told her of his conversion; she knew about those “jailhouse conversions” of prisoners who proclaimed their salvation, only to revert to their old behavior once they were paroled. “I didn’t believe him. I thought he was just saying what he thought I wanted to hear.”
Imagine, then, her surprise when Darryl began telling her about listening to a radio series about Christian marriage. He recognized his failure as a husband and father, and wanted a second chance. “God began to show me that it was never His intent for us to divorce,” he told her. “I think He wants us to reconcile.”
Gwen just laughed. “You got me once,” she told him. “You won’t get me twice. If you really are a Christian, I’ll see you in heaven.”
Gwen’s heart began to soften toward Darryl as the months passed. She enjoyed their conversations more, and even looked forward to them. “As time went by, we would start talking without fussing. We established a friendship on the phone again.”
Darryl was released in March of 1992, after only two years of his sentence. He immediately began attending Gwen’s church and meeting with its pastor. He started seeing Gwen and his children regularly, and they began enjoying their time with him. Gwen saw his hunger for God, his desire to grow in his new faith.
But he still needed to win her trust. Was this really a new Darryl, or would he revert to his old lifestyle? Darryl sees the next several months as a test of his faith. His pastor counseled him to be honest about his past, but no one was interested in hiring a convicted felon. It took him seven months to find a job, yet at no time did he consider selling drugs again, even though he was approached with different offers to get involved.
Gwen recognized that she was now facing a test of her own faith. The old Darryl was gone, and a new man had taken his place. It was difficult to argue with the reality of the changes God had worked in his life. She also took a new look at their former marriage, and realized she had played her own role in the break up. “What I did may not have been as colorful as what Darryl did, but that doesn’t make it right.”
So she decided to take a step of faith and trust God to make this second marriage with Darryl what it should have been the first time. They married again…and they decided to do it on the same date as their first wedding.
So today, if someone asks the Smiths when they were married, they reply, “August 28, 1984…and 1992.”
Adapted from a book by David Boehi, I Still Do: Stories of Lifelong Love and Marriage. Copyright 2000 by FamilyLife. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers.