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SOUL PROVIDER // Henry L. Porter reaches out to the world with the power of song

Published Oct. 16, 2005

SARASOTA - It was the music, that soul-stirring, body-rocking gospelmusic, that sidetracked Henry L. Porter from mathematics and into the


He had figured on the comfortable life of academia, perhaps as a vest-clad professor on an Ivy League campus, teaching complex variables and differential equations to inquisitive students. He never wanted to lead a church or be a preacher man.

But Porter learned that when he sings in his rich-as-honey voice, and when his fingers dance across the keyboard with amazing grace, he can captivate the masses in a way that his classroom instruction never could.

It was a call he first resisted and then embraced with passion.

"Sometimes," the 42-year-old Porter says, flashing the smile that has become his trademark, "God has other plans for you. But he doesn't necessarily give you the whole business all at once. Just in small doses, so you don't get scared off."

What began more than two decades ago as a group of people congregating for music and prayers on Porter's parents' front porch has ballooned into an evangelism network. Today, the would-be college mathematician is the self-appointed bishop of the Henry L. Porter Evangelistic Association Inc. in downtown Sarasota, at 403 N Washington Blvd. At the heart of the association is the Westcoast Center for Human

Development, a non-profit organization that includes a transdenominational church at the main site and 10 satellite churches throughout Florida, with a combined membership of 900; a television and recording studio; a Christian school for grades K-12; Black Action, a monthly newspaper; a 40-piece orchestra and a number of singing groups, ranging from a children's chorus to a 200-voice mass choir; extensive community outreach programs; and a pastoral program that has ordained 16 elders.

In a style that meshes Lou Rawls with Jesse Jackson, Porter preaches to crowds of thousands across America and in Germany, Africa and Jamaica. His services are telecast on cable stations in several U.S. markets and broadcast live on WQSA-AM (1220) radio in Sarasota on Sunday mornings and evenings.

When he's on stage, Porter says, he "entertains and engages." His backup singers follow his lead, swaying when he sways, dipping when he dips. At any moment, he may single out a member of the chorus and hand over the microphone for an impromptu solo.

Despite a peripatetic schedule that keeps his staff in a whirlwind and rarely allows him to take a day off, Porter never wavers in his enthusiasm for bringing people to the Lord. He does it through touch, through laughter, through fluid Sammy Davis Jr. dance steps in his flower-bedecked sanctuary. The way he interacts with people is what most impresses Westcoast member Marvin Hendon.

"When I came here, I saw life and love. It's that gleam in Dr. Porter's eye when he gets going on a sermon. It's the response he gets from the kids to the elderly people. It's the music. It's how he makes you feel good about yourself," says Hendon, a clinical psychologist.

At age 75, Virginia "Mother" Hairston, doesn't get around as well as she did in her younger days. But come Wednesday nights, Saturday nights and twice on Sundays, she's at the church, joyously rocking in the pews, waving her arms and singing loudly with the rest of the congregants, most of whom are black.

"I won't miss a chance to hear Brother Porter, no siree. He preaches the truth. He tells you how to live right, take care of your body and make something of yourself," Mother Hairston says. "He knows how to take the Bible and make it apply to everyday life. He has a gift."

In a way, Porter has not deserted his ambition to be a teacher.

"You can live a drug-free life, you can get an education, you can aim for the sky and meet those goals," says Porter. "This world needs all the lovin' it can get. Make people love themselves and the result is they're going to believe in themselves.

"That's how we can turn this thing around."

When Porter refers to "this thing," he's talking about the ills that plague the black community he serves. He targets children, most of whom come from single-parent homes, because he sees them as the hope of the future.

And he hasn't forgotten what he calls "the lost generation of young black men" who fill the state prisons. Porter is on the road as much as eight months a year, usually traveling by bus with church members to one of Florida's many correctional facilities.

"You've got to go where the people are, and the sad truth is that many of our people are in prison," Porter says. "If we don't take the time to lis ten, to love and to offer them a chance at salvation, they'll be gone forever. Man, we've got 37,000 men locked up in this state, and 80 percent are black. If we don't reach out, who will?"

Porter's lessons haven't been lost on his family. His 12-year-old son Henry Jr., the eldest of his and wife Cynthia's four children, possesses a serious air of responsibility and confidence unusual in boys his age.

When he grows up, the bespectacled Henry Jr. says, he wants to be a lawyer first, then president. "It's just a matter of putting your mind to it," he says.

It was Henry Porter's sixth-grade teacher who indirectly gave him the push to succeed. The teacher told his mother that "if Henry works real hard, he just might make it through school." That's when Porter, an asthmatic child who couldn't compete in sports, vowed to surpass expectations.

He made good on his promise. When Porter graduated in 1965 from Sarasota's Booker High School with a 3.98 grade-point average, he was valedictorian of his class and recipient of numerous awards and academic scholarships.

"I have to use my own life as an example because I know what it's like to feel out of place and behind everyone else," he says. When Porter talks, it's in a soft-spoken voice with emphasis on key phrases. He pauses often between thoughts, to give his listener time to digest the words, and moves in very close, as if he's sharing a secret.

"You can always be better than average. God gave all of us special talents and abilities. You find those talents and you fly with them."

Besides his scholastic skills, Porter made another discovery at age 14: He had a gift for music and the voice of an angel. When he sat down at a piano or organ, he could "see the notes" in his head and play like a master. He recalls taking two lessons a week at Booker High School but dropping out after one month.

"I didn't want to get all formal, so I self-taught myself. That allowed me to develop my own style. Most of the time, it's all spontaneous for me. I feel it here" - he points to his heart - "and I bring it out on the keyboards."

In 20 years, Porter has written more than 1,000 songs and recorded 10 albums. Ted Rogers, former owner of Sarasota's WQSA-AM, calls Porter "a brilliant composer, an energizing singer and a top-rate performer.

"Here's a guy who could go to Nashville, Los Angeles or New York and be a big success. It's astonishing what he does with music," says Rogers, now a communications consultant. "He's incredibly talented, intelligent and articulate. I've known him for years, and I'm completely sold on his sincereity and his purpose."

If Porter weren't so "fiercely devoted and dedicated" to Westcoast, Rogers says, he could be a big commercial success. But Porter won't take the time away from his ministry to make that commitment.

"I hope Sarasota appreciates what it has in Henry Porter," Rogers says. "There's nothing wrong with him, no matter how deep you scratch. He's a rare individual."

Church life played a pivotal role in the Porter home in Sarasota's New Town community. Henry's father, Lee, a mechanic, and his mother, Hazel, a homemaker, took their children to Hurst Chapel, an African-Methodist Episcopal church.

Although Porter says he accepted Christ at age 11, he admits his "true commitment" didn't come until shortly after high-school graduation, when he attended a worship service at a nearby pentecostal church and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

"That's when I first felt the call of the ministry. But I didn't feel the need to do it in a traditional way, like in a church. I believed I could do it with my music," Porter recalls.

He went on to study mathematics at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. He was president of the Alpha Kappa Mu National Honor Society, a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and director of the FAMU-Community Gospel Choir. During summer and spring breaks, Porter would gather with other aspiring singers and musicians on his parents' front porch, where they played long into the night.

Porter had a natural charisma that placed him center stage.

"I can remember the crowds growing until we had as many as 100 people jammed on the porch, the lawn and filling the house," he says. "They came from everywhere. The music would bring them, and the Lord's word would keep them."

After earning his bachelor's degree in 1969, Porter was awarded a Ford Foundation doctoral fellowship. He chose to study mathematics at Yale University. Before leaving for graduate school, however, Porter organized the Community Gospel Choir of Sarasota. From a core group of seven, the choir grew that summer to more than 40 members.

"What excites me about gospel music is its vibrating, pulsating beat," Porter says. He slams his palm into his fist. "It impacts like this - bam! bam! bam! All Motown did was take what we had been singing in the churches and put a new label on it."

In 1971, still in his study program at Yale, Porter formed the Henry L. Porter Evangelistic Association, which became the umbrella for his ministerial programs. He seesawed between his two lives as student and preacher, often returning to Sarasota to organize youth groups, prayer meetings and gospel concerts. When FAMU offered him a job teaching mathematics in 1973, he took a break from his doctoral studies to return to his alma mater.

Porter never returned to Yale. The time finally came to "face up to what God had planned for me."

"I had all these grand dreams to teach college math, to study in France, to become a classical pianist. Never once had I considered returning to Sarasota to run a church," Porter recalls. "But I told the Lord, 'If you want me to come back, put it into my heart.' I'll tell you how he did it: He made me fall in love with the people."

Westcoast Center is a beehive of activity every day. In the late 1970s, services were held in houses and office buildings. But when the First Assembly of God in downtown Sarasota put its building on the market in 1980 for $500,000, Porter saw an opportunity to seize the dream.

Within two months, the congregation had enough for a down payment.

They moved into the spacious church and paid off the mortgage within two years.

"We don't have a lot of money. We don't have any of the old money in Sarasota. What we have is what we raise ourselves, or get through grants and foundations. It's called hard work and trust in God," Porter says.

Already, Westcoast has outgrown its quarters. Members are searching for another building or a site on which to build a new church. Porter has voiced his commitment to remain near downtown Sarasota, where he can reach lower-income blacks who haven't made church a priority.

That's why he calls Westcoast "transdenominational" - it's a way to draw in people of all religious backgrounds, he says.

"I'm not trying to get people to leave their churches; I'm trying to get those who don't go anywhere," Porter says. "That's another reason I use television. It's unfortunate, but a lot of our people just don't read books. I've got to reach them where they are, and that's in front of the TV set."

Once Porter gets them into church, he doesn't just put the Bible before them. In language they understand - he calls it a mix of "ghettoese" and polished English - Porter stresses education, no drugs and living a moral life. He pushes equality among the sexes and kindness to others.

Cynthia Porter, who serves as assistant principal of Westcoast's school, says her husband of 14 years practices what he preaches.

"He's my good friend, my mentor and my supporter. He's also a great homemaker and a better cook than I am," she says. "The only problem is that he gives so much and doesn't know how to draw the line. But the way I look at it is that God has blessed us with so much, that it's okay not to draw any lines.

"Let Henry give himself to Westcoast. There'll be time for me when he comes home."

A graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., Cynthia Porter is an Equity actor who serves on the board of the Van Wezel Center for Performing Arts. She runs Westcoast's PRIDE (People Reaching Out in a Determined Effort), a program that helps prostitutes in jail and on probation break out of their destructive cycles. She also helps coordinate the adoption of unwanted black children by church members and performs with the Love Campaign, a showcase Westcoast singing group that combines glitz and high energy.

Like her husband, Cynthia thinks the church is the soul of the black community.

"I don't think it's racism that's brought us down; it's economics.

That's what has destroyed our families and broken our homes," Cynthia says. "We're trying to set a good example here.

"We're not the Huxtables, we're not the Bushes. We're just the Porters, but we're doing our best to make a difference."

Westcoast Center's phenomenal growth sometimes catches Porter off guard. All he wanted, he says, was to lead a small team of people out into the world to reach others.

"Don't put me on a pedestal. I'm human. I have feet of clay," Porter tells church members at a recent service. "A minister isn't all knowing, all-kind or all-good. Don't run to me for all the answers, because I won't have them. That role belongs to God. And everyone has accessibility to God."

With that, in a voice that dips from a deep baritone to a lilting falsetto, Henry L. Porter breaks into a song. For him, there is always a song.