JACKSON - More than 350 members of Matlock Baptist Church in Jackson were at Sunday morning homecoming services for the Rev. Mark Riser.
On Sunday afternoon, they returned to the church's Fellowship Hall to honor their beloved pastor, who on March 4 returned from Iraq, where he served as an Army chaplain.
In a room full of pastries and punch, the Rev. Riser talked about being back on South Carolina soil.
"Words can't describe how it feels to be home," said the Rev. Riser, who was deployed to Fort Stewart, Ga., in April and on May 23 arrived in Iraq with the National Guard's 122nd Engineering Battalion.
"There were lots of days I didn't think I'd make it," said the four-year pastor of Matlock Baptist, who vividly recalls gunfire that was dangerously close.
"I was fortunate because I had the church looking out for my family," he said.
On April 15, the Laurens, S.C., native will celebrate his 32nd wedding anniversary with Cathy Riser. The couple has two grown children, Caleb, 26, of Peachtree City, Ga., and Erin, 21, a student at the University of South Carolina Aiken. Caleb is married, and Erin's wedding date is June 19.
The Rev. Riser welcomed his challenging wartime role.
"I prayed and counseled a lot," he said, noting that the unexpected duty extensions caused permanent emotional scars and many divorces. "It was devastating on families," he said.
Gerry Sell, a 45-year church member, said lots of prayers were generated for the Rev. Riser's safe return.
"We're just glad to get him back," she said.
Mrs. Riser said she was concerned during her husband's absence but relied on her faith.
"I had peace," she said. "I worried, but I knew God would take care of him."
Jerry Dockal, a church deacon, also felt assurance during the absence of the man church members affectionately call "Preacher Mark."
"I knew God had a protective arm around him," he said.
Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.