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A Chaplain -- By God's Grace

His young life was on the fast track to a dead end, but God had other plans.

U.S. Navy Chaplain Matt Riley is one likeable guy. He’s steady. He’s compassionate. He’s dependable. He’s committed to God, family, and the U.S. Navy personnel he serves on the USS Port Royal (CG 73) currently stationed out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Chaplain Riley is not only an admired role model and mentor to hundreds of naval personnel, he is exactly the opposite of who, what, and where he should be.

Riley should be running from the law, in prison, or long ago dead. Living with his grandparents because his mother suffered from schizophrenia and his father was denied custody of their three sons, he was introduced to drugs, sex, and gangs by his older brothers by age 11.

“My grandfather was a retired Air Force major who had zero patience for children,” Riley recalls, admitting beatings were common. The boys were ultimately sent to a mental health hospital for troubled children. Foster care would follow — four homes in two years — and life after that was nothing short of anarchy, as one brother joined the Crips and the other associated with the Latin Kings in Austin, Texas.

With his two “gang affiliated” brothers as role models, it wasn’t long before Riley followed in their lifestyle — drinking, drugs, and girls.

The boys would move back in with their grandmother after their grandfather passed away, who left behind a small fortune. It may have appeared that the boys were caring for their grandmother. But in fact, without her knowledge, Riley says “incredible acts of sin and debauchery were going on.”

Drugs and drug deals, prostitutes, gang members, guns, and heavy partying that led to “cocktails” of drugs and alcohol were a dangerous combination. Riley recalls diving behind a brick barrier as a car drove by his grandmother’s home and the passengers opened fire.

In 1998, when Riley was 16, both of his brothers were in prison. His brothers’ friends became Riley’s friends — many had serious criminal pasts . . . and futures.

“There were parties at my house every weekend and sometimes even during the week,” Riley recalls. “At my disposal were incredible resources of time, money, and people who were capable of committing evil. I was in over my head.”

But then something totally unexpected happened. Riley’s girlfriend at the time asked him to stop at a local church because she wanted to talk to a friend who attended youth group there. Riley would follow her inside and there be exposed to teens truly worshipping God. He also met Pastor Kenny (PK), an African-American, who prophesied over Riley, who is Caucasian.

“I remember he came up to me and said, ‘I don’t do this very often, but God told me to tell you that He has a plan for your life,’” Riley says. PK had Riley’s phone number and started connecting with him.

“One day, he made a cassette tape and gave it to me,” Riley says. “On it, he spoke Scriptures with my name added into the verse. He told me that he knew what kind of lifestyle I was living, but no matter what I was involved with, he wanted me to play the tape every night. There were many nights, I would lie down in my bed intoxicated and still listen to the tape.”

Riley still remembers many of those verses:  “Matthew, who dwells in the secret of the most high, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty . . . , Matthew will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in Him I will trust . . . , Surely He will deliver Matthew from the snare of the fowler.” 

At the time, Riley says he had no intentions of changing his lifestyle, but in looking back, he can see how God was at work — even though Satan was doing his best to negate PK’s positive influence.

“Friends I didn’t even know I had would come by and offer to pay for the next party,” Riley says.

Riley would hit rock bottom shortly afterwards. He recalls partying so hard one night that in the morning he couldn’t move. “I couldn’t get up,” he says. “It seemed like the hand of Satan was putting physical pressure against me. I was a prisoner. Sin had me and I felt as if I was on my way to hell.”

Yet God was at work. A “divine discontentment” settled upon Riley’s life. The idea of leaving Texas became an everyday thought, ultimately leading him to the U.S. Navy Recruiting Office. Riley, with no high school diploma, on probation, and having $2,000 worth of unpaid traffic tickets didn’t qualify. However, the recruiter recommended he try the government’s Gary Job Corps to get his life on track.

Riley would wait out his probation, voluntarily sit out his time in jail for the tickets that had turned to warrants, and pay off the rest of the fines. “I can remember those days in jail as they involved a lot of prayer and contemplation,” Riley says. “When I left the jail, I no longer had a desire for cigarettes. God was changing me on the inside.”

He would enter Gary Job Corps in August of 1999. The first Sunday there, he awoke with the desire to go to church to thank God for what He had done in his life. He went to church with his roommate, who attended a Pentecostal Church of God in Christ.

“Every sin I ever committed rose to my mind,” Riley says. “Shame, guilt, and the unholy activity flashed in my mind, wanting to be released. It was a similar pressure that sat on the middle of my chest like the time I lay bound on my bed.”

Riley’s answer? “I reacted by standing to my feet before the altar call was given, before the closing hymn, determined to get saved,” he says. “I didn’t know how it would proceed, all I did know was that I wanted forgiveness.”

Riley would stand there for 15 minutes and head for the altar the moment the invitation began. The pastor and every man in the church would pray for Riley, with the pastor’s son, Wayne Thompson, a minister, ultimately becoming his lifelong friend. Thompson would help Riley get involved in the church’s prayer services, where he experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Riley would complete his GED at Gary Job Corp and immediately enter the Navy. After basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois, he was assigned in May 2000 to the USS Detroit AOE 4 (fuel, cargo, and munitions supply ship) out of Earle, New Jersey. He soon had a reputation as a hard worker and was teased heavily by the crew for his “church boy” lifestyle.

Positioned just 12 miles from Manhattan, with a view of the city, Riley will never forget the day he and his shipmates stood and watched in amazement and horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned and collapsed into a cloud of ash and debris after being struck by terrorist-controlled jetliners. They would later learn that their ship was the closest to Ground Zero of all naval vessels, and would be selected to join a battle group of American warships headed to the Middle East.

Due to his work ethic, Riley was selected to attend HM (hospital corpsman) “A” School, also located in Great Lakes. During that time, he met Navy Chaplain Carl Farmer, an endorsed Assemblies of God chaplain, whose words changed his life.

“My young mind was flooded with the possibility that I could one day be a chaplain,” Riley says, excitement still in his voice. “He dialogued with me as if I were a suitable candidate for ministry. It was a most amazing conversation. I left his office full of hope for the possibility of someday being a chaplain.”

Riley would complete HM “A” School and report to advanced training as a surgical technologist. Even though he admits starting to rely upon himself more than God, God patiently tethered Riley by providing spiritual leaders in his life.

Through a series of circumstances, Riley would end up being attached to a Marine unit in Iraq, where his medical skills, sadly, were often required — and where the calling on his life to be a minister was confirmed.

One night while in prayer during a midweek service in Iraq, Riley felt God calling him into the ministry. “I said, ‘Lord, if this is Your will for my life, I will go into the ministry.’”

Instantly, joy flooded the heart and soul of Riley. He now saw himself through God’s eyes as a minister. “I talked to people about God, I prayed for people . . . and the Sunday evening before I left Iraq, I preached my first sermon!” Riley says.

When Riley returned to the States, he had just six months left in the Navy. He ultimately decided to attend Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri, to become a chaplain, so he called the chaplain recruiter for that region and, as God would have it, Chaplain Carl Farmer answered the phone . . . .

In Springfield, Riley connected with AG pastor and former missionary Gerald Horne, and committed to weekly mentoring sessions with him at a local coffee shop. Horne, a military veteran himself, invested many hours guiding, correcting, and honing Riley. In fact, he and his wife, Alice, even played matchmaker with Riley and their church’s worship leader.

“Pastor [Horne] seemed intent on setting us up,” April Riley recalls. “Maybe it was my rebellious inner voice, but I had no desire to be set up with a guy. At all.”

But in this case, “Pastor knew best,” and in August of 2007, a little over a year after Matt and April had first been “introduced,” they were married.

“God used my love for Him and passion for my country and combined them into a beautiful journey of Chaplaincy,” explains April, who admits she “ate crow” several times as her initial relationship with Matt grew into love. “I just had to get out of His way.”

Over the course of four years in Springfield, Matt Riley received licensure  — his M.Div — ordination and ultimately endorsement as an active duty AG chaplain.

“While Matt and April were in Springfield preparing for military ministry, I watched both grow individually and as a couple,” says Chaplain Scott McChrystal, the military/veterans affairs endorser for AG Chaplaincy Ministries, a branch of AG U.S. Missions. “They love God and people — they both have awesome relationship skills.”

Riley’s first assignment was to the US Marine Corps School of Infantry (SOI) West, Camp Pendleton, California. Within nine months he became the only chaplain at SOI with a maximum student body of 2,500 Marines. Riley would grow an evening service from 75 to an average of 300 each service.

Following that tour, Riley served with the Seabees in Port Hueneme, California, and deployed twice with them to Okinawa where he was able to pastor in Camp Shields and visit detachment sites as far flung as Palawan, Philippines, to Atsugi, Japan.

Currently Riley is the command chaplain of guided missile cruiser USS Port Royal home ported in Pearl Harbor.

“It is no wonder to me that God is using them so powerfully in ministry to the warriors and families who comprise our Navy and Marine Corps,” McChrystal says. “I consider it a privilege to have them as part of our AG chaplaincy team.” 

Riley is not who, what, or where he should be. Not even close. Instead, Chaplain Matthew Riley, happily married and with three children, proudly serves his God, his country, and the men on board his ship all due to God’s amazing grace.

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.