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

soundoff (398 Responses)
  1. Tashi

    Very well written and great perspective.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  2. Bill

    I am an African American son of a deceased Methodist minister. THIS SERVICE TOUCHED ME...like not many before.
    ...AND....when they LIFTED HER GOLDEN CASKET HIGH...and proceeded through the aisle... with her VOICE... THAT MOMENT...is still with me, as I suspect...with many others who saw it....

    February 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Nakia Jones-Ofallon,il

      @ comments.

      Thank You. @Bill, You are absolutely correct when they lifted that casket and her song began to Play I was in my living room, tears running down my face holding my hands in the air, as we do when we are praising the Lord in Church. Then shortly after I saw Mrs. Cissy Houston being escorted, my heart just went out to her so much more at that moment, she seemed as though if she didn't have the assistance by escorts she would have made it. I felt so deeply saddened seeing that. Nakia.

      February 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  3. Nakia Jones-Ofallon,il

    After reading some of the post and comments about how long black church is...I have to laugh... See we know once you go in you may not come out until evening.
    Rule for attending "Black Church"
    Eat well the night before, have a hearty breakfast the morning of, and plenty of mints and snacks in your purse to make it through the first couple of hours..
    Note: The Church Normal have the mothers of the church prepare a meal so there is something to look forward to for everyone. We get the word together then we break bread together.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • kica

      Girl you better tell'em! 😀

      February 18, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • kica

      And yes that is the exact moment I just lost it! The casket on their shoulders and that song were my complete undoing.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  4. Myra Jolivet

    A beautifully written commentary. It gave me goosebumps.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  5. Desmond J

    I am very happy that you did this. Great job!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  6. clarke

    It was a wonderful church service. Thank you for sharing. My prayers to all the family and may Whitney rest in peace. Her song at the end was so moving and it was the truth.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  7. Ann Brock

    Thanks! what a beautiful and well written piece.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  8. QS

    This commentary was beautifully written.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  9. Nakia Jones-Ofallon,il

    I am so grateful for Cissy Houston allowing us to attend her daughter Whitney Houstons funeral this day. I have screamed at the television on some of the high points during the funeral, such as Donnie McClurkin, Stevie Wonder,Clive Davis, Kevin Costner Kim Burrell, Bishop Jakes, Winans Family, Alicia Keys and most definitely Pat Houston, Whitney's sister in law.

    My Prayers go out to You and Your Family Mrs.Cissy Houston again Thank You for "taking us to Church" from 10:30 until 3p

    February 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  10. Lynn

    Very well said and true of the Black worship experience. Excellent insight and very well written article

    February 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  11. Matthew Kilburn

    "The white church is about power and intimidation. The black church is about love and hope."

    What an idiotic statement. You will find countless white churches as much about love and hope as anything you saw today, and as for power and intimidation – just go ask Rev. Wright about that.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • clarke

      For just one day, please let it go. Please.

      February 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Dee

      CAN YOU LET IT GO?...My God this was a beautifully written with no ill intent. For once can you just get outside yourself and stop trying to turn everything into a race thing? If you open your mind just a little you will find that this day brought people of all races together today and that's the most important thing.

      February 18, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  12. Matthew Kilburn

    It was a good service. Different, obviously, from what Catholics like myself are used to at a funeral, but a nice service nonetheless.

    That said, this is hardly the first time "Black Church" has been seen on TV.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  13. ann

    Join us at Bethel tomorrow.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  14. *frank*

    I am blessed! You are blessed! We are all blessed! Thank you for all our undeserved suffering and unbearable agony, white Jesus!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  15. taxxy

    Had I been raised in a black church, I likely would never have left. The white church is about power and intimidation. The black church is about love and hope.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  16. Cheryl (never in peril) Thomas

    AMEN my brotha!!!!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  17. Cal

    Extremely well written and heartfelt. Thank you so much for sharing YOUR talents!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    February 18, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • HIM

      ...and theism IS?

      February 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  19. ComeOnMan9

    This article was so true. I was squirming and sliding in my chair because it felt like I was there and I don't like the church thing. I found myself nodding and reciting at the right spots after being in attendance to at least 12 black funerals. Way too long for my former Methodist sensibilities. Be at peace Whitney!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Cal

      Sometimes it is survival of the fittest in the African American church! The pastor keeps saying he's almost done, but you learn from a very early age to know better!

      February 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  20. Kat Lewallen

    Amen~ thank you for sharing what I was feeling after watching the funeral.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:04 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.