Spotlight Interview with Dewey Williams, Minister on Death Row


No, that is not my projection about the year in which the world will come to an end. 2414 is the number of people in America for whom in all practical ways, the world has already ended. 2414 is the current number of men and women on death row in America today. 

Persons who are incarcerated for even the most hideous of crimes do not cease to be persons. They do not cease to be people created in God’s image, people who God sees and loves and desires to redeem, some of whom have come to know Christ and who are our brothers and sisters, in prison for life or until the state brings their life to an end through execution. Who are these 2,414 people? What do they think about? Who’s going to see them?

Jesus puts visiting those who are in prison on the list of how the sheep and the goats are going to be divided at the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Pastor and author Dewey Williams recently joined me to share his story and the stories of those he has served on death row, from his book, Finding Joy on Death Row, Unexpected Lessons from Lives We Discarded.

This is an edited excerpt of Carmen’s interview with Dewey on Mornings with Carmen. To hear the full interview, listen online at

Carmen LaBerge: Why write a book about a place no one wants to go and with people that most of us would honestly rather not think much about?

Dewey Williams: Well, writing the book was not something that I purposed to do. I was pursuing joy in my life and God directed me to death row. And there on death row, as I was pursuing joy, I found joy through the men and women on death row and their testimonies that they shared into my life. I preached to them and I gave them my best and my all. I won an award for my sermons on death row at Yale, of all places. I was invited to Yale to present my work that I did there. And coming out of my presentation, a man said, “This needs to be a book.” That’s kind of what generated the whole thing.

I went back to do some more work with the men on death row and I had the men start writing about my sermons. The moment I read what they wrote, I said, “Somebody else besides me needs to read what these men are writing about joy in their life.” And so that’s how it all got started and got going. I’ve just been so deeply impacted by this experience, I wanted to share it. I wanted to share the men and women’s stories and I wanted to share what happened in my life also. So that’s the genesis of how this all got going.

Carmen: Well, it has been achieved. You have accomplished what the Lord set out to create through your testimony and through your faithfulness in, not only going to visit, but in this beautiful way that you have invited the men and women on death row to reflect on some very specific questions, but also on what God was teaching them and leading them to understand about themselves and others and life itself through an interaction with the word of God, which you brought to them through sermons.

And so, these handwritten letters that are scattered throughout the book, and again, I’m just going to remind everybody who’s listening, we’re talking with Pastor Dewey Williams. The book is Finding Joy on Death Row, Unexpected Lessons from Lives We Discarded, Dewey, these handwritten letters that are scattered throughout the book, they tell the story. You tell the story throughout, but the handwritten letters, the handwriting, it’s so personal to have these handwritten letters throughout the book. Part of your visit includes this process. Can you just talk about the process of having the opportunity to reflect and write down and share your thoughts about something as itself, this dignifying redemptive act?

Dewey: Well, the process was a very lengthy process. I’ve been involved with this for a few years and getting all this going. It all started with me being low, me being emotionally and spiritually drained or tapped. And in a way, God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well, can you go preach on death row?” It wasn’t something I was pursuing. It wasn’t something I said, “Oh, I got to go preach on death row.” It’s something that came to me and I think that’s because I was pursuing joy. I did not really understand it all at the time. My first thought, everything I was doing was about joy, because I was searching for joy and so I’m searching for joy and I get invited to preach on death row.

My first thought was, “What do you preach about joy on death row?” How does that fit? How does it mix together? But I did it. I went and I preached about joy. And so the whole process of then going back and having them write in small groups, I went back and they’d be in groups of two to four of them and they would write about my sermons. I’d give them 15 minutes to do some writing and then we’d sit down in the group of two to four men with myself and talk about what they wrote and get them to open up to one another and to me and to share. It was just such an impactful experience for me that it changed me. As I wasn’t feeling the joy really in my life, through this experience, the joy became alive and vital and important and God took me to a place where you normally don’t even think joy will be. And that’s where God showed me joy. So that’s kind of the message of the book. Even in the low places in our life, God will reach us and God will provide us joy in the places where we would least expect it.

Carmen: Dewey, I want to take you where you take us personally because I’m sure that there are folks listening right now wondering, “Well, why was Dewey so low? Why was Dewey wandering around in the darkness? Why did Dewey need to pursue joy?” So your own story is a part of this story. You experienced the murder of your own father at the hands of your sister. You describe how that act of violence brought a deep darkness, this shadow into your life and another experience of death brought the darkness invading again.

Can you tell us how entering into the lives of men and women on death row, how that brought light into your life and really restored your joy? Was there a process there that you can point to or a moment that you can say, “You know what? That’s when the light started to come back on.”

Dewey: Yeah. My very first day being on death row, I was with a group of volunteers and we were there ministering to the men on death row. I was sitting there kicking myself in the butt because I wasn’t where I wanted to be in ministry. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do in ministry. Internally, I wasn’t saying this to anybody but internally I was kicking myself and I sat at a table with the man, we had a break, man on death row. He leaned over toward me and he said, “I want to tell you something.” He said, “I’m not on death row. I’m on life row and I’m going to live my life the very best I can every day.” And here I was kicking myself because I wasn’t where I wanted to be. And here’s a man on death row teaching me that life is more than really being where I want to be.

It’s about making the best of the life that God gives us. He had decided he was going to make the best of his life through God the best way he could. No, he doesn’t want to be on death row, but that’s where he is. But he’s going to give his life to the Lord and live it in glory and honor the best way he can. And so I left that experience transformed saying, if that man can find joy, if that man can have this sense of reality of what God can do, how dare I kick myself because I’m not where I want to be. How dare I question God about what God is doing. I need to say, “I’m on life row and I’m going to live my life the best way I can.” That man taught me a lesson that day, my very first day on death row, and that was a transformative moment in my life.

Carmen: It’s extraordinary. The book is so good, you guys. It’s a window into Dewey’s life and experience and his transformation. It’s also just this incredible window into the lives of the men and women on death row that Dewey has had the privilege of spending time with.

Talk about how spending time with these brothers and sisters has opened your eyes to, what I will just describe as the very simple freedom of eating fried chicken or walking barefoot in the grass or hugging a child or holding your wife. How has spending time with folks on death row really opened your eyes to the simple freedoms those of us on the outside enjoy every day?

Dewey: Yeah, it has been a very impactful journey for me because I’ve been able to experience them up close and in person. Prison is a very different place and there are a lot of rules and regulations in prison. Some of the rules and regulations say there is no hugging. It’s against the rules to hug someone that’s incarcerated because there’s just been a lot of problems with contact with those that are incarcerated. I know one man who became overjoyed, one incarcerated man accepted Jesus as his savior, and this volunteer went up and put his arms around and gave him a big Christian hug. Well, that man that gave the Christian hug was suspended and could not do service any longer. He was just spontaneously out of the joy of Jesus Christ giving this man a hug. But those types of rules exist in prison where all I can really do in terms of physical contact is a handshake or a fist bump.

But it’s so good to be able to be up close, to sit around a table. We’d often have snacks. When I did have one reunion with the women that are on death row, I did take some chicken and we were able to share a meal and have some chicken and chips and pastries and drinks. It’s really humanizing. They feel human. And the food in prison is terrible. It’s horrible. And I’m not saying prisoners deserve to have five course meals, but they typically get some of the worst food that you’re ever going to eat. And so when you bring some cookies in or you bring some chicken in, you are seen as somebody that has brought a gift from heaven above into their presence because they get some real food. And so there’s a joy in sitting around and talking and mingling.

One thing I’ve tried to do with every visit I make is to humanize these people that have been incarcerated and sentenced for doing things that we think are horrible and terrible, but God has reached into them and God has sent me there. So I just continue to try to give a human message of life and hope and joy to them. And in return, they are a blessing, because they are a community of believers. I preach to a community of people that believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. So there in the middle of death row, there’s this group of men that gather and support one another the same way the church should be doing that’s in our community, the churches that we go to. That’s the same thing that happens with these men. So I treat them with dignity and respect and try to give them a look to heaven right there in the midst of a place that’s all about hell, hell on earth. So that’s a charge that I take and give there on death row.

Carmen: I’m wondering, Dewey, if, as a pastoral act today, you might speak to at least one person who I know listens regularly. He was 17 when he committed a crime for which he is now incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole. I’m wondering if you could speak a word of encouragement into his life right now. You know how to do this better than any of the rest of us. His name is Michael and he is a Christian, and he’s been in prison now for 30 years. He’s likely going to be there for the rest of his natural life. Could you speak to him?

Dewey: Well, I don’t know Michael. I don’t know his particulars and the situation, but I do know God, and I do know that God made Michael. And God has made you Michael for this time and this season. You may not be where you want to be. I wasn’t where I wanted to be. But I am here to declare to you, Michael, God has hope for you. God has work for you. God has opportunities for you and that you are in the place that you are to be a light. A light of the hope of Jesus Christ. Somebody needs you, Michael. Somebody needs you in that community, incarcerated community. Somebody needs to hear about the good news of Jesus Christ. God has placed you there to be a witness and to share that good news with somebody. There’s no telling how far that good news that you share will go.

You may not get out, but somebody that will hear the good news may get out and they’ll tell their family, their friends, their communities. They may tell the whole world. They may get on a radio program like this and broadcast the news across the nation or around the world. There’s no telling how far the good news that you have within you will go. You just have to share it and share it and share it, and God will bless you for it.

There’s a man on death row. He’s in the book, he’s Alden. Everybody talks about how Alden shares the gospel with everybody. He’s the biggest encourager on death row. Many of the men that come and worship are there because Alden wouldn’t stop telling them, “You ought to come on to church. You ought to come and worship. You ought to give God some glory.” And because of that, his testimony is reached out in my book and is reaching to you, Michael. Your testimony can do the same. I pray for you and I lift you up, and I just ask that God use you and that God continue to use you day by day. God bless you and keep going, Michael. Don’t give up on what God has in you.

Carmen: Dewey, thank you and what a delight to have the opportunity to talk with you today. I would ask that you would pass along our gratitude to all of the co-authors of this book, the men and women whose letters are included in here, the men and women whose stories are included in here. Please tell them that we see them, we hear them. We’ve been ministered to by them. We appreciate the contributions that they have made to this book. So thank you so much, Dewey, for sharing this story.

Listener’s Guide: What’s Next? 

After hearing an interview like this one, it can be easy to move on to the next thing on our to-do list, but instead, let’s take a moment to pause, and reflect on what we have heard and consider what God may be asking us to do in response.


  • Read Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46. What does this passage say is true of the sheep? Of the goats?
  • Why is it so easy for us to dehumanize or forget about those who are in prison? How might you remember these people, who are created in God’s image, more regularly? 


  • Pray for prison ministers like Dewey Williams, as they visit, minister to, and encourage those who are incarcerated.
  • Pray for persons who are incarcerated, that they might encounter Jesus while in prison, and experience the freedom and joy of the gospel. 
  • Pray for Christians who are incarcerated that they would be a witness to the good news of Christ, and would see how God is using their lives, right where they are.


  • If you are not already, consider how you and your family can together serve “the least of these” by partnering with a prison ministry like Prison Fellowship.

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash