February 18th, 2012
05:38 PM ET

My Take: Houston funeral brings world inside black church

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Whitney Houston gave a lot of gifts to the world. She gave us the best rendition ever of "The Star-Spangled Banner." She gave us “I Will Always Love You.”

But Saturday at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where as a girl she sang in the choir, she gave us a church service — a chance for people of all races to see what church looks like inside the community that gave Houston (and us) her voice.

“There are more stars here than the Grammys,” said Houston’s music director, Rickey Minor, and the service did feature pop star Stevie Wonder and music mogul Clive Davis, among others. But so much of popular music started in the black church, and today the black church talked back.

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In other words, this was an unapologetically Christian service, replete with references to salvation and “amazing grace,” where even the pop stars were transformed into gospel singers. People crossed themselves. They raised their hands to heaven. And the congregation kept shouting back: “Yes!” and “That’s it!” and “Praise the Lord!”

Tyler Perry testified that “Whitney Houston loved the Lord.” Cece Winans sang “Jesus Loves Me.” And when R. Kelly sang “I Look to You,” he wasn’t just accompanied by the choir behind him but by a chorus of “amens" from the congregation.

Marvin Winans, a gospel singer and the founding pastor of The Perfecting Church in Detroit, thanked Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston for deciding to hold the service at New Hope. “You brought the world to church today,” he said. And so she did.

It is often said that Sunday morning at 11 is the most segregated hour in American life. So many Christians who attend church all their lives never see what millions saw earlier today on television. They don’t know what a black church choir sounds like. And they have never heard a preacher like Winans, who delivered the eulogy.

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For years I have been promising to take my daughters to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Boston's Jamaica Plain, co-pastored by the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond and his wife the Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond. But I have never done it.

Today I texted my oldest daughter to tell her to tune in, to see how Christianity lives and breathes far away from the mostly white Lutheran and Episcopal churches she has known growing up on Cape Cod.

I wanted her to see the call-and-response tradition that turns a song or a sermon into a collaborative act, as much a product of the enthusiasts in “Amen corner” as of the singer or the preacher. I wanted her to see how sermons can be delivered extemporaneously, instead of bring written and read. But most of all, I wanted her to feel how it feels to sit in a church like this while whatever you want to call that power washes over you.

Tyler Perry: Houston loved the Lord 

The Winans sang a beautiful version of “Tomorrow,” which played the role in this service that the sermon often plays in black church funerals — reminding us all that we are going to die so now is the time to turn to Christ.  “Jesus said here I stand/ Won’t you please let me in/And you said I will tomorrow,” they sang, before reminding us, “Who promised you tomorrow/ Better choose the Lord today.”

Winans preached from Matthew 6:25 (the lines just before we are told to consider the sparrows): “Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?"

There was talk in his sermon of salvation, in both this world and the next. And there were references to the Exodus story, that great narrative of deliverance from slavery that has inspired Americans of all races since colonial times.

There was also more than a hint of the prosperity gospel, which according to Winans is the only gospel there is. The Bible, he said, is our “owner’s manual” and God gave it “so that you can get the best performance out of your life.”

But as I listened I heard two main messages.

The first was not to worry because God has our backs.  The second was to “prioritize,” a word Winans repeated throughout his sermon. “No man can serve two masters,” Winans said. “Either you love God or you serve money.” So we should put God first.

In the end, however, what lorded over this service wasn’t any one person or any one message. It was the spirit of the thing, which swooped and soared over the mourners like something very much alive: the exhalations from Alicia Keys before she began to sing, the sobs from Whitney’s mother, and the sense of a presence of something lurking, perhaps, in the day to day but unmistakable in rare moments like this.

I don’t know what to call that something. Sociologists have their theories. Preachers do, too. But it stopped me up short for a few hours Saturday afternoon. “We’re gonna have church today,” pastor Joe A. Carter of New Hope Baptist said to open the service. And so we did.

And when the sermon was over and they carried out her coffin and “I Will Always Love You” soared over the sadness, it didn’t sound like a love song. It sounded like the truth.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Celebrity • Christianity • Church • Death • Entertainment • Faith • Houses of worship • Inspiration • Uncategorized

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    November 30, 2013 at 7:22 am |
  2. Eda

    It's wonderful to fnlialy be let in on the history of this whole thing! God is certainly moving very powerfully and visibly in your lives. I love that you will be starting a church for those who have been "scarred by 'church.'" That's the kind of church I so desperately need right now. Maybe I'll have to start watching this Perry Noble of whom you speak so highly.Thanks for sharing, Susanne!! It's so wonderfully encouraging and inspiring to see people so absolutely running over with joy!

    September 6, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
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  5. LeeAnn

    Dolly Parton gave us "I Will Always Love You" long before Whitney Houston sang it. I have enjoyed Whitney's music but prefer to her Dolly sing that song.

    April 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • nquashie

      What a clueless response! What version of the song is SO beside the point!

      May 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  6. freereader

    It is a shame that some people don't come to church except for a wedding or funeral, or in this case, that of a celebrity. Did anybody get saved there?

    I also know from personal experience the differences between white and Black churches. The Black churches are have a different flow, and that is more of a cultural thing.

    We live in a generation where if you think in terms of skin color, then your thinking is highly outdated.

    April 23, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  7. jon

    Notice it's OK to call it a "black church" imagine if a church called itself a "white church" does a black church exclude all whites? Why the double standard? Shouldn't it just be a church with no reference to race?

    April 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
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  10. Fritz

    THANK YOU CNN for making the investment to cover Whitney Houston's homegoing service with some of your top talent commercial free. What an excellent investment to develop and build brand loyalty. It made me think that Ted Turner was the owner of CNN again. GREAT JOB.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • David

      Tara, Awesome advice, and smtohing we often forget to spell out from the beginning. Here in FL we are very casual, but I know that to reach people from all generations, I must try to find some middle ground in how I dress, wear my hair, my accessory choices, etc. This is sometimes a challenge for me, but God is helping me to find some balance. We have talked about many of your experiences with that staff, and I have taken many mental notes. People's perception of you or of an event is often more important than the actual event, because you can't argue with or change someone's personal perception–only God can. Thank you for being transparent in your blogs and in your ministry, and using your life to show us in ministry how to better work with the ones God has blessed us to work with. You are an example of Rom. 12:18 in action!

      September 9, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  11. Fritz

    I am a black Catholic and have not spent much time in churches that are not Catholic but as I get older (53) I find myself going to funerals of my friends parents, my father and some of my friends pretty frequently. I have to admit that I have come to recognize that there is no "Right or Wrong" way to celebrate the Lord. The key is whatever method works to get Gods message out to the people who attend the pastors church is what is important. A teachers job is to get the subject matter out to the students and make sure they understand and comprehend it. God has spoken So let the church say AMEN. ( What a great song). The Houston family absolutely took the world to church during Whitney's homegoing service. GREAT JOB!

    March 14, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  12. jms

    Stay on message people. We aren't damning religion, we are talking about African American churches. Every one needs something to believe in and I respect the faith and beliefs expressed in a black church even if I don't share it. I've been to services in several black churches on several occasions and my, oh my how my white face stands out. But I find the parishioners in black churches far more welcoming of whites in their service than blacks would be in many white churches. So where are the lessons of Jesus alive and well these days?

    March 12, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Iris

      I couldn't agree with you more. Very well said.

      June 2, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  13. periwinkle

    That thing, "lurking", as you put it, that washes over you??... it is called emotion, and religion has USED it as a drug for eons to persuade people to believe crazy, insane things.... Religion is just another crutch and drug, like crack...it's whack.

    March 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  14. Guest

    Save me Black Jesus!
    (is there crack in heaven?)

    February 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • writingmomma

      You will get your chance on the day of judgment, to stand before your creator and ask that question personally. You better hope he has his since of humor and look over your ignorance. You can hide on the computer and list yourself as a guest. But, God knows every single hair on your head!

      March 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  15. Lean6

    Interesting piece and perspective. I as an introvert, on the other hand, was raised in that environment. With a family that consisted of little more, I left 22 years ago at age 17 and didn't look back. It was a miserable existence for me, having more or less my reserved nature constantly on trial or target for inclusion as a prop in some visiting preacher's show. No thanks, just give me the word.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • travelinpants

      I am curious..... The environment in which you find yourself, do you receive more or less revelation as it relates to the WORD?... The WORD alone is not enough......You have to be in an environment where your spirit is receptive to the Holy Spirit. as He reveals the WORD to you... Word of wisdom, 22 years is not necessarily a long time for not looking back. When you are 50 you will find yourself right back in that pew in that black church and to boot, that will be the only thing that will have changed (your location of worship) since you stopped looking back. All else, wife, husband, job, career moves, neighborhood will not change, BUT you will!! "Teach a child the way he should go and when he is old he will return back to it." IT NEVER FAILS!!! Believe me, I have been there and done that!!

      February 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Guest

      Amen, Lean. As Paul states in 1 Cor 14:40 "But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner." When did church become an entertainment venue? Some services look more like a concert than a respectful worship service. Now we have huge bands, choirs, and even dancers. Isn't the Word enough to ingnite a fire in one's soul? Why all the bells and whistles, too?

      March 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  16. JJ Jukebox

    I think black (and white) christians are posers. They act religious on Sunday but for the other 6 days they are sinners.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:38 am |
  17. Ann

    Well written and right-on observation of the African-American church experience.

    February 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Fred

      Amen. Jesus said If I be llifted up, I will draw all men unto me. http://yurconnected.blogspot.com/2011/03/colton-burpo-sat-in-jesus-lap-in-heaven.html

      February 26, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
  18. Ltrain

    This was an amazing synopsis of the Funeral. I watched, and was in awe of the service/message. I agree, this was a window for those who have never been to a black church. God forgives all sinners, IF they ask for forgiveness and on this day I'm sure that church was filled with some heavy hearts that needed this church on that day more than anything.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  19. travelinpants

    This is how people of African descent survive in a world were they are despised regardless of their accomplishments and rich and giving history. Without our belief in a higher more just power who will ultimately decide the fate of rich and poor the world over, we would be walking corpses. Our faith in our Lord and His particular brand of justice keeps us going and so it is for many, many God fearing people in this world.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.