When Herb Henry came to Ceres to pastor the Richland Faith Assembly of God Church 30 years ago, the small house of worship was in the midst of country north of Hatch Road. Three decades later, homes, apartments and commercial shopping centers have replaced the cow pasture, the peach orchard and the corn field that hemmed in the tiny church building.
It's a different Ceres and a different world than in 1986, but Herb Henry - who will be 70 next year - is hanging onto what's familiar - preaching the gospel and singing and promoting Southern Gospel music.
"I know it's a strange thing being a pastor who promotes gospel music," said Henry, "but people don't understand the power of this music. They don't understand what it does."
The music is what drew, years ago, an elderly woman named Mallory, who had dabbled in the occult. She came down the aisle one night and whispered to Pastor Henry "You've helped me to know Jesus like I've never known him before."
That moment, he said, was one of his greatest moments of his ministry, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last Sunday.
"Music really melts the heart, softens the heart so that the truth can enter in," commented Henry.
Henry is probably better known for his weekend radio programs that feature Southern Gospel music and his performing as a singer than for his sermons at the church. The two ministries, however, work in tandem with one another as the church helps undergird Richland Ministries.
To understand Herb Henry you have to follow things back to the beginning.
Born to Luther and Lola Henry on Feb. 3, 1947 in Oakdale, Herb grew up in Riverbank. The couple owned Henry's Market on Terminal Avenue in Riverbank. His father was a devout Christian businessman who would give to customers calendars which pictured Jesus as the shepherd, as evidenced by the 1957 calendar hanging in Herb's Ceres office. Luther Henry also used to pass out store pencils to kids that were engraved with John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall inherit eternal life." Businesses wouldn't dare do that today for risk of offending some customers in the pluralistic America.
"My Dad was a very religious man."
Herb remembers hanging out at the store and remembers Kilpatrick bread truck driver Perle K. Brown who'd pick him up as a kid and give him rides to some of his next stops. That practice ended when the company told him to stop.
"He was my hero from then on," said Henry. "What's interesting is he was a board member in this church. He was one of the founders of this church."
Brown lived in Ceres and had attended the former Glad Tidings Church (later Valley Christian Center) in downtown Ceres. He died at 90 in 2005.
Herb attended Riverbank schools and in 1964 graduated from Oakdale High School since Riverbank did not have a high school then. Luther Henry never made it past the sixth grade but he wanted his son to graduate from college. Herb studied at Modesto Junior College before majoring in Business Administration at Stanislaus State. Herb wasn't sure what he wanted to do in life but entertained the idea of opening up a music shop, like his mentor, Don Smith of the Gospelaires, had. While still a student, on Jan. 1, 1965, Herb joined the Premiers Quartet, a Christian music group which sang at churches and concerts on weekends. Herb played piano for the Stockton-based group and stayed with them for nine years.
"We traveled coast to coast. We went all the way back to Pennsylvania and Florida, up and down the coast. I traveled with them full-time the last couple of years and the Lord impressed upon my heart one night that it was time to get off the road and into church ministry. So I did."
With a degree from CSUS and having obtained ordination, Henry pastored for a few years in Austin, and Corpus Christi Texas, because the quartet spent time there and because his future wife had family there.
Flat tires in Southern California led Herb to meet Nancy Meek, his future wife.
The quartet was in Ventura when a tire on their Greyhound bus had a blowout on Highway 101. They fixed the flat and arrived at their venue where a dark-haired girl came up and asked Herb if he knew they had a flat tire. The spare time was now flat. Because they had no idea where to get another tire, Nancy's dad, who was an Exxon offshore drilling superintendent, fetched a loaner tire from Halliburton.
"We had three flats that weekend. I've been singing in three flats ever since, I tell people."
(Um, that was a joke.)
The two corresponded over the 330-mile distance until Herb returned the tire to the Meeks weeks later. Herb got acquainted with Nancy and her family. In three months they were engaged and in two years they were married. Nancy went to nursing school in Los Angeles.
"She became what we called a quartet wife, which stays home and takes care of things and works while we travel."
Gospel singing groups like the Premiers make their living primarily off of love offerings taken wherever they perform. The experience with the Premiers fueled his love for singing Southern Gospel.
After several years as a Texas pastor, Herb came to Ceres to work as a choir director at Glad Tidings for a year and a half under the pastorate of Eugene Spears.
Before deciding to settle in California in 1986, both Herb and Nancy had a dream that his mother needed them. As they finished packing up their belongings, a phone call came from someone who related that Richland Faith Assembly of God needed a pastor.
"In a matter of three weeks I was pastor of this church. It happened just like that."
In 90 days his father had fallen and broke his hip and "from then on he went downhill." His mother ended up living with them for 11 years until she needed to go into a rest home where she was when she died.
Henry had no inkling that he'd ever go back into gospel music while pastoring Richland Assembly, which then was accessible on Richland Avenue, only a lane and a half wide at the time. But the small church needed music for services so Herb started getting his three children - Angela, Chris and Amanda - to sing right after arriving at Richland.
"Our little church needed music so I started teaching the kids to sing and from there on we started going to community singings. We call them singing conventions."
At one of those conventions - held in Grayson - Herb resolved to form a family singing group. He would get the kids up 15 minutes earlier to practice harmonizing around the piano. They didn't resist.
"You know, they liked it because I had exposed them to gospel singers. We had the Cathedrals in our church in Corpus Christi and they just loved the Cathedrals. And we watched some of the groups on television and they loved this music so they wanted to sing it."
The Henrys would sing once a month at Village Chapel Free-Will Baptist Church in Ceres and performed at the first of Ceres Concerts in the Park. At around the same time Herb had formed the Richland Trio singing group, consisting of himself, Jack Black and Richard Hartsfield.
"This thing just sprung out of the ground."
The trio was invited by Don Smith of the Gospelaires to come down to Madera to sing with the Speer Family. The group's agent asked Herb if he wanted to bring the Florida Boys to Modesto as his first planned concert promotion. He went to the Oakdale radio station KCBC-770 AM to buy radio spots and was invited by the station to have his own show. The Richland Trio first sang on KCBC on Saturday evenings on low wattage.
"That helped us get everything organized."
In 1992 a Sunday afternoon slot opened up with 50,000 watts and Henry has been on the air with them now for 28 years. The one-hour show turned into 90 minutes. By 1999 it went to two hours. He also has a 30-minute Saturday program.
"We've got listeners all over Northern and Central California."
I recently heard Henry's voice on my car radio while driving around in Vallejo. Another gentleman near Santa Cruz told me he listens to Henry faithfully. The audience is scattered throughout Northern and Central California as evidenced by the fan mail and checks that listeners send in from locations such as Occidental, Sacramento, Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen.
Henry digitally records his program at home on a lap top, giving the history of various groups as he introduces the music. Each week offers a new show.
"We do the whole works. Chris and I do the program. The thing that really sets our program apart is I'm an historian. I tell about the people who sing this music. I tell their stories. I play three songs from my record cabinet and share a lot of memories from the past."
The program fills a vacuum, said Henry, for older people who grew up in church with the older music.
"The music that we grew up on, we can't find it in a lot of churches anymore."
Henry eventually got involved in promoting Southern Gospel music concerts in Central California.
Quite by accident his first unplanned concert at the Ceres church was J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, which was made famous through his seven-year association with Elvis Presley. Henry received a Thursday call saying Sumner and the Stamps had a cancellation and would be available that following Tuesday, Valentine's Day in 1989.
"We packed our church out," said Henry. "The next night happened to be our annual business meeting and I made a resolution that we form Richland Ministries to promote gospel music in this part of the country and we did. We've been doing it ever since."
The music ministry is still under the auspices of the church.
For some of the bigger groups, Henry has sold tickets at larger venues, such as at Downey High School gymnasium.
The Cathedral Quartet was the most well-known group he's hosted after the Blackwoods faded from the music scene.
"My last concert here in Modesto we had 2,300 people for them at Calvary Temple. And before they retired we had 2,750 in Sacramento and I turned away 500 people and I was selling tickets cheap -- $13. That was cheap. I could have sold them for $20 probably but I've always strived to not make it hard on the people. Over the years we've dug into our pockets to help these groups because we believe in what they're doing. It's great music and it's great entertainment for Christians. There was a day and time when Christians didn't go to a lot of places they go to today."
He's also hosted the Kingsmen, the Statesmen, and the Hoppers - all leading groups in America at one time. He also hosted the Chuck Wagon Gang, popularized out of Ft. Worth, Texas, during the 1940s.
Henry admits that the popularity of Southern Gospel music is waning as generations grow older and with American churches focusing on contemporary choruses in an attempt to appeal to broader unchurched crowds. But it goes without saying that those who attend Richland Faith will be exposed to hymns and Southern Gospel.
As far as his radio program goes, Henry estimates that his average listener is probably older than 55. He said many church music ministers believe the style of music is old-fashioned but that doesn't deter him from continuing to sing favorites like "The Lighthouse," "He Touched Me," "When We All Get to Heaven," and "He Hideth My Soul" for the 75 to 100 or so who attend his church.
Nancy stopped singing with the Herb Henry Family a few years ago but the group now has Richie Hartsfield.
As if radio and church wasn't enough for the promotion of Southern Gospel, Pastor Henry for five years now has contributed as the "Out West" columnist for the Singing News magazine.
Henry isn't sure about the future of his kind of music once he's gone.
"Everything has a life to it and then some things have a cycle to it. Sometimes I wonder if we're at the bottom of the cycle or are we at the end of the road? This music has had its cycles. When we started here in 1989 it had disappeared from the scene here basically. There wasn't much going on. These groups didn't stop here in Modesto."
For now Herb Henry's music can be heard in person as Richland Faith, located at 1201 Richland Avenue, during Sunday services at 10:50 a.m. and 6 p.m.