My Cellie Roy Smith is a pastor with a problem. But he's about to be reminded that the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
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My Cellie

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My Cellie

My Cellie

Roy Smith is a pastor with a problem. But he's about to be reminded that the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.

My Cellie

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're going to kick off today's episode with one of the more unlikely "Reunion" stories you're ever going to hear.

SNAP JUDGMENT's Julia DeWitt has the story.


ROY SMITH: I'm Roy Ettayan (ph) Smith...

DEWITT: And Roy is a minister.

SMITH: ...And been in the ministry for almost 25 years.

DEWITT: Back when his congregation was trying to get some money for a new building, he was feeling a lot of pressure to make good on his promise that he would find them the loans that they needed.

SMITH: And I kept promising the church, oh, you know, we're going to have a great property and everything's fine and you know, the good Lord is going to work for us. And so I think I was at a point of desperation.

DEWITT: That's when he met this mortgage consultant and the mortgage consultant said he would take care of all of it. So Roy just signed whatever paperwork the consultant handed to him. And it worked; they got the loans. They built their church, they started a school. Everything went really well, for about a year.

SMITH: I picked up the phone one day and it was an FBI agent. We were being actually accused of committing misrepresentation mortgage fraud.

DEWITT: Turns out the mortgage consultant; he had cooked the books. But because it was Roy's signature on all the falsified reports, it all came down on Roy.

SMITH: I stood before a judge on sentencing day and we went in very confident. We had plans for the rest of the evening. Judge, almost in an apologetic type of voice, she says, pastor, I have to set an example. And she sentenced me to 15 months of federal prison. I felt like I was getting life in prison. I felt like I was getting the electric chair. I felt like my life was over. And then I looked at my attorney who promised me I was not going to prison and he would not even look at me. He kept looking forward. I said OK, well, if I'm going to prison, you know, I want to be strong and be an example, you know, to the people who look up to me as dad, to the people who look up to me as husband, to those who look up to me as pastor. And I told him God has a plan. I don't know if I - if I said that because I believed God had a plan. I think it was just a cliche to me at that moment. I had no idea.

I showed up, it was snowing outside and they gave me not even 10 seconds to say goodbye to my wife - packed a duffel bag, like, I don't know if I thought I was going on a camping trip or checking into the Days Inn - I don't know what I thought. But, of course, when I arrived, you know, they gave me a strange look and took the duffel bag, like, you can 't bring anything in here. (Laughter) OK. And, you know, they put you in a holding cell until they process all your paperwork and - I'm in the holding cell all alone. I started thinking about my dad because that's the only person that I knew of that had ever been in a federal prison.

DEWITT: Roy never actually knew his dad growing up. His dad left before he was born.

SMITH: As a child, I didn't know who he was. And, I mean, I saw him I think once when I was seven years old. He showed up at our house, he stood in the doorway and he gave my sister a birthday gift or something. My mom saw the look on my face when I looked out the door and, you know, she says oh, well, that's your dad. I'd ask questions like where does he live and can I talk to him? She says no, she said I don't want you around him. He's not a good influence for you. When I became a teenager, she began to talk about these terrible things that she experienced with him. You know, there was lot of domestic violence and I don't know, I just kind of - I started hating him.

DEWITT: Roy had spent his whole life trying to not be like his father. He went to college, he was a pastor, he had a wife and kids that he loved and he took care of. And still he somehow ended up there in prison, just like his dad.

SMITH: I started thinking, like - like father, like son. And then there was parts of me that almost blamed him. You know, is this, you know, some sort of karma or is this a generational curse? Was I bound to end up in prison because he was there? Then they came for me and said we're taking you upstairs for your orientation. Mr. Cooster (ph) who was the counselor, said let's just get to it. He says now we need to talk about your bad assignment. When he told me who was in the room, I almost did, like, a double take because that's the same name as my biological father.

DEWITT: His dad was his cellmate.

SMITH: I didn't want to believe it. I grew up most of my childhood hating this guy and I always rehearsed in my mind that, you know, what I would say to him if I ever saw him. I thought it was some cruel punishment. You're going to spend 15 months with this guy and you guys are going to fight like cats and dogs and you're going to confront him about every little thing he did to your mother. And I just wouldn't let myself believe it until I was escorted over to that building. And my dad was standing there to greet me.

When I was not even a foot from him, it all changed. At that moment, all I wanted to do was touch him because, like, are you real? Are you really here - are you - am I really here with you? I kind of hugged him and I looked at him and I said well, good afternoon. It was just - it was crazy. And it was hard to adjust. I couldn't open up to him. It wasn't like instantly father and son, you know, we were actually inmates. We were cellies for a while, actually. And I called him Mr. Milton.

DEWITT: For the first few weeks, they mostly just talked prison talk - they talked about the nurses in the clinic to avoid and about which vending machines were broken. But then, one day, Roy's dad pulled out a folder.

SMITH: He said look-a-here, you know, he always says look-a-here. So he says look-a-here and, you know, in the folder, he had all of these newspaper clippings of when I graduated high school and I was in the newspaper for different things with school and when I got married and all types of stuff. So he has all these newspaper clippings and even my mom's obituary and all of this stuff that I'm like wow. He saw the look on my face and he was like uh-huh, you didn't know, did you? Uh-huh. He was like I know more than you think I know.

There were moments when - when I felt like he was crossing the line with me. And one night I was staying up, I was reading, I was writing, you know, and he said come on, you need to go to sleep. I'm like oh no, I'm going to stay up, you know, good night. And he said I said you're going to sleep. That's when some of those unsettled emotions and feelings came to the surface again. It was at that moment that I thought I definitely need to talk to him about some things. And I said I have a bunch of questions. I said are you ready to answer them? And he said I don't know. He said depends on what the questions are. So he's real stubborn. I didn't even know what first question to ask. I had so many questions.

I said I heard, you know, I started telling him rumors - not necessarily my mama said - but it was I heard this, I heard that. I said is that true? And he would never really admit to anything direct. He would say oh, some of it might be. And the turning point was when he said, you know, she was a good woman and I wasn't always a good man. That did something for me. I had a picture of my mom and the way he looked at that picture, it did a lot for me. He said after a while, he stayed away because he didn't want me to - you know, he joked about it - he said because I didn't want you to end up in here. He says well, now that you're here (laughter) - so we both kind of started laughing. I said well, I'm not in here for the reasons you were in here - well, you're a drug dealer and you know what I mean? I'm a white-collar offender, as they say. I think the changing moment was dad was on medication. And one morning, he didn't go over for his medication.

And they kept calling him over the intercom and I said Mr. Milton, they're calling you. At that moment, I felt like not on my watch, you know, you're not going to be sitting here and getting sick. He said he appreciated my concern and I said no problem dad - that was the first time I called him dad and it just rolled off my tongue. It wasn't deliberate or rehearsed or anything. And I said did you hear that Mr. Milton? I called you dad. I said what's that about? And he laughed (laughter). So then I kind went back and forth with, you know, Mr. Milton, Sir or dad. My first Christmas with my dad was in the prison - I got my first birthday card from my dad in the prison. One day with my birthday card that I kept reading a hundred times that day in the prison, I'm like I love this guy, I really do. And I was shocked by it. I thought that was something that would take years. And, you know, I guess being forced to be with somebody up 24 hours a day, things do happen quickly.

DEWITT: After being locked up with his dad for seven and a half months, Roy was released early for good behavior. His dad had three more years of time to serve.

SMITH: That was bittersweet because I looked over at my dad and he had his head down. And we had become so close that he didn't want me to go and I didn't want to leave him there. We didn't even say bye. It wasn't like goodbye, see you next, you know, see you later.

We just looked at each other. It was just that look. When I was riding home with my wife because she asked me, she said what did he say when you left? And, you know, I said he didn't say anything. He just - we just looked at each other. Ever since then, it's like we've always had a relationship. You know, he fusses at me, he gets mad at me, I get mad at him like a normal father and son. He's stubborn, I'm stubborn. But I know he loves me, you know, he does tell me that every conversation. It's the last thing he says - I love you, I love you too.


WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Roy Smith for taking SNAP with him on his journey. That piece was produced by Julia DeWitt. When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we have a story of lost treasure finally found and one lady who decides to rock her high school reunion like no one has ever rocked it before, for real, when SNAP JUDGMENT - the reunion episode - continues. Stay tuned.

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