February 12th, 2012
10:17 AM ET
By the CNN Wire Staff
NEWARK, New Jersey (CNN) – As the sun rose the morning after Whitney Houston's death, congregants at the Baptist church where she began her singing career as a member of the junior gospel choir gathered to mourn, pray and share stories of the pop superstar.
The Houston family has been "inseparable" from New Hope Baptist Church, Pastor Joe A. Carter said in an interview Saturday night, and Whitney would continue to visit throughout her life.
Carter led the congregation in a prayer service for Whitney Houston on Sunday morning, "petitioning the Lord on behalf of Whitney's daughter, her mother, and the entire Houston Family," according to a statement on the church's website.
Houston, 48, was found dead Saturday by her bodyguard at a Beverly Hills, California, hotel.
Whitney Houston's mom, Cissy Houston - herself a renowned gospel singer - was director of sacred music at the church for 54 years and is still a member there.
Asked whether he had spoken to Cissy Houston, Carter said Sunday he had, and "she needs our prayers and support."
"Whitney was a mother, a daughter, a sister, and that's the focus that we want to keep in front of everyone today, to continue to lift the family up and respect this time of grief."
Those arriving for the service Sunday at the large brick church in a residential stretch of Newark were quiet and somber. Reporters were not allowed inside. One woman leaving Sunday services said the flock had prayed for Houston's family.
Church member Karen Winfield told CNN New York affiliate WABC that she has followed the Houstons’ musical careers for 60 years and has heard Whitney and Cissy Houston sing at the church.
“Her and her family have been real legends up North,” she said Sunday, referring to Whitney. "So I'm here to support them at this time of sorrow.”
“I haven't slept - I've been up all night,” she said. “Just going over, listening to her songs and reminiscing about her life. And what's going to happen to her daughter. Her mom. Her brothers. But she's in a better place.”
Alvin Sims, associate minister at New Hope, called Houston a “powerful, powerful woman.”
“I have never heard a voice like hers, never” he told WABC. “That certainly is a gift from God.”
Whitney was born in Newark in 1963 and was soloing in the junior choir by age 11, according to the All Music Guide. "Whitney's mother and cousins nurtured her passion for gospel music since birth," according to Houston's official website. Her cousins include singers Dee Dee Warwick and Dionne Warwick, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin.
As a teenager, Houston would accompany her mother in concert.
A video posted on the Internet sharing site YouTube shows a young Houston singing the lead on the gospel song, "Have a Little Talk with Jesus," at the church.
The church's history is "deeply associated with the power of Whitney's voice and the influence that she's had, not only in this church but across the world," Carter said. "We're saddened at this loss."
One of the country's highest profile pastors, T.D. Jakes, said Sunday that Houston had completed work on a remake of the film "Sparkle," on which Jakes is a producer.
"We ask the world to join us in lifting up Whitney's family in prayer and ask God for their strength and comfort during this devastatingly difficult time," the Dallas, Texas based Jakes said in a statement. "At the apex of her career, Whitney had no peer, with a voice that shaped a generation. She has left behind a musical and film legacy that will endure."
Cissy Houston got her musical start in her family's gospel troupe and went on to record her own albums and to provide backup vocals to well-known soul and pop acts.
New Hope Baptist began operating in a Newark home in 1903, originally led by a preacher from North Carolina.
"As the world mourns the loss of one of the all-time greats, we in Newark feel an especially deep sadness," Newark Mayor Corey Booker said in a statement Saturday night. "She went from a Newark church to the global stage, but she always remained a deep part of our pride and collective heart."
"This church, the church that Whitney grew up in, is calling for prayer for her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, her mother ... and the entire Houston family and Whitney's fans," Carter said, appealing for privacy on behalf of the church and Houston's family.
–CNN's Poppy Harlow, Deb Feyerick, Laura Dolan and Dan Gilgoff contributed to this report.
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