Pastor James R. Riley

The Rev. James R. Riley pastors two churches — House of Prayer Baptist Church and First Little Rock Missionary Baptist.

A combat mission in Iraq helped the Rev. James R. Riley realize his life’s mission and purpose.

Riley, of Baton Rouge, served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, culminating with a stint in Iraq from 2002-2004.

“I saw so much death, so much calamity, so much hopelessness,” he said. “What God was showing me was that the world was bigger than Glen Oaks, where I grew up, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There are so many other things going on in the world to focus on us.”

That time in the Marines was an indication of what God had already put in Riley’s spirit years earlier.

“My heart was always drawn toward missions — how can I help somebody else in whatever small way I can that’s going to help improve their way of life and make it better tomorrow than it is today? What sacrifices can I make? … What can I share with somebody that’s going to change how they perceive other people?” he said. “The one thing people lack today is empathy and that’s one thing I gained from Iraq more than anything.”

Riley, 40, carried that mission-minded mentality into post-military life. He worked as a network manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for seven years after Hurricane Katrina before answering his call into the ministry.

He was named pastor of House of Prayer Baptist Church, at 1640 N. 48th St., in May 2016. In December, he was also elected to lead First Little Rock Missionary Baptist at 312 S. 17th St.

“I pastor two churches in two very poverty-stricken areas of our city,” he said. “I pastor from the perspective of how can I share Jesus?; how can I share compassion and love you?; how can I pick you up when you’re down?"

Riley said the church has always been a fixture in the community.

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“If somebody’s hungry, we feed them. If somebody needs clothes, we clothe them. If somebody’s homeless, we try to find somewhere for them to go,” he said. “I pastor everybody like that. I don’t care if you’re a millionaire or whether you’re a person who’s smoking crack at the crack house.”

The church has always been a part of life for Riley, who was saved at 8 years old and raised in the church by his mother, the Rev. Vernita R. Riley, a longtime church musician.

“What my mother instilled in me was my purpose was greater than me. It wasn’t just because of me but because of the purpose that God has on my life,” Riley said of his mother, who now serves as his executive pastor at House of Prayer.

Riley went into the Marines after graduating from Glen Oaks High School. After service, he tried to “fit in” before finally finding his place in ministry. He was licensed to preach in 2009 and went to receive his master of divinity and doctor of theology degrees from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The journey to the leadership of two churches and a blessed family life wasn’t without its challenges, Riley said.

There were times when he “strayed away” from the church.

“I’ve had times when I was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and I had Jesus,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I was coming or going some days. Meditation wasn’t working. My doctors at the (Veterans Administration) were doing all they could, but the therapy wasn’t working.”

Riley recalled times when he couldn’t sleep for three or four straight days and other times when he’d have nightmares that he couldn’t wake up from. But he said even his dark days had a purpose.

“I believe all those difficulties that I had before were leading me to where I am now,” he said. “It was God’s way of taking away all of my other options to make sure I was being pointed in the first direction.”

Contact Terry Robinson at terryrobinson622@gmail.com