PITTSBURG -- If the measure of a man is the size of his dreams and the number of those who sing his praises, Los Medanos College music department director Silvester Henderson is ginormous.
Intense, immensely ambitious and unambiguously impassioned about the power of education, the man known to thousands as "Mr. Gospel" conducts a mighty "orchestra" of believers. The Pleasanton resident is adorned in educational pedigrees, Grammy Music Educator Quarterfinalist honors, an upcoming East County NAACP Community Service Award and multiple other earned accolades.
The unstoppable son of a father who couldn't read or write, a mother who took in laundry for a living and with an East Oakland childhood he says in an interview that "caved in on me," Henderson's every move appears improbable. Long ago, he was an overweight child transfixed by a piano; then a teenager, working odd jobs to pay for classes at San Francisco State University. Meeting El Cerrito couple Aaron and Bernice Thompkins as a 17-year-old kid, and attending Oakland's Church of the Good Shepherd Baptist, Henderson says, "They were an educated African American couple. I told myself, 'I want to be like that one day.'"
Gospel singer Helen Stephens, founder of the Lighthouse Singers of Marin, gave Henderson the ultimate blessing -- a language for expressing his zealous determination to rise above life's waterline.
"I'm emotionally stubborn," he says, explaining how humble beginnings and traumatic bullying failed to quash his ambition.
Henderson, who has a master's degree in choral conducting from SF State, taught African American studies and music at his alma mater for 12 years, and formed the 120-member Young Inspirational Gospel Choir at UC Berkeley, He also has run the Palma Ceia Baptist Church music program in Hayward for 33 years, and is a music professor and leader of the Los Medanos College Gospel Choir. On top of that, he's also the author of an extensive five-part curriculum that divides and defines gospel music.
Planning the Los Medanos choir's 20th anniversary, May 10 "Community Celebration Concert," it's no surprise that Henderson has a grand vision.
"We're promoting music education and the liberal arts for underserved communities as a means to save our children," he says. "Gospel is music that promotes hope for individuals who have despair. Education should support mankind through equitable learning and community."
And Henderson's only getting warmed up, because the concert's cause is backed by a load of talent -- more than 300 performers, including Broadway's "Wicked" star Celisse Henderson (one of Henderson's three daughters) and Lena Byrd-Miles (an Oakland singer Henderson describes as "Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin and Shirley Caesar, all wrapped up in one").
Los Medanos' gospel choir will be joined by the Palma Ceia Baptist Church Mass Choir, Young Keyboard Superstars, Sons of Mr. Gospel and other performers.
The latter two groups are composed of young men Henderson has mentored, including Michael Blankenship, who's come full circle and now co-instructs the SFSU Gospel Choir and has served as keyboardist for Sheila E, Lauryn Hill and others.
"Being a young black male -- not that race is the only key, and I had a great father -- there was a point in my 20s where (Henderson) was refreshing," Blankenship says in a phone interview. "He was a successful musician: he does what he says he's going to do. Everything he requested of me, he could back it up. He was almost militant, but with a high degree of compassion."
Henderson says the concert can be "like a field trip" for students who aren't well-served by today's emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).
"STEM doesn't uplift African American young people," he insists. "It doesn't serve them well, because it says their culture is unimportant. It's prejudicial. Gospel is a catalyst to encourage creative expression."
But he's not suggesting students put all their eggs in the musical basket. After all, he didn't. He calls his home in the gated, upscale Ruby Hill community "proof that you can obtain things through a legal, hardworking manner." Real estate investments and 20 years of utilizing his educator's muscle to establish a sustainable lifestyle through music, have resulted in what he calls his proudest benefits -- financial success, three children, a 31-year marriage to Cecile (also an East Bay educator and musician) and 225 to 250 former students per month in contact with him.
Much like his favorite classical composition, Serge Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, "Mr. Gospel," is passionate, complicated, replete with rich, full harmonies--and a man who has traveled beyond dissonance to compose a better future through education.