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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.

Costner delivers poignant eulogy for co-star Houston

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. Steve

    I feel that the church service overall was a wonderful tribute to Whitney Houston. However, I also feel that Kevin Costner's words could have focused more on what Whitney Houston did for him (and the World) rather than focusing on what he did for her! This is a day where it should be CLEAR that SHE is being appreciated and recognized. Also The Bodyguard movie would NOT have had the impact that it did without HER PRESENCE & SUPERLATIVE, WARM, AND BEAUTIFUL SINGING!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Somebody

      I thought Kevin Costner did an amazing job. Obviously the stories he shared were ones he and Whitney had shared and laughed over. That was why he shared them. And Kevin made it CLEAR that he didn't want anyone other than Whitney in the movie. Maybe you should go back and re-watch Kevin. His was a very tender, moving and wonderful speech that honored Whitney, his friend.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Brenda Anderson

      Steve, I totally agree. I had that same thought. It went just a tad over the line, but over the line, nonetheless. I didn't find it offensive, exactly. Just notable.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  2. Matthew

    Prothero-Well written!

    Winans message was very powerful and relevant and hope it touched the hearts of many.

    God is Love!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  3. Tom

    I've been to numerous black church services, but had not intended to watch Houston's funeral. But just as I got up to leave the computer I saw the 'watch live' notice & decided to spend a few minutes anyway. Ended up watching the entire thing. Very poignant, simple, not ostentatious. And definitely Christian with emphasis on salvation through a personal relationship with Christ. The writer did an excellent job of describing it. Funerals are always difficult, but this was about as good as I've seen. Got a chuckle when the Rev told of a lawyer calling him up prior to the service offering to trademark copyright it for him. Figures!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  4. GGail

    Stephen, that was a well written and beautiful article. Thank you.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  5. Pete

    It's interesting to me the degree that blacks have embraced a religion that was forced on them as slaves. If there were a God, the notion that he would be so insecure as to need people to bow down to him and worship him is absurd. Attending a black religious service might make you feel good if you suspend reality and pretend there is a God who is actually listening, but I'd prefer to spend my Sunday mornings in nature enjoying what is real, not make-believe.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Tom

      Eventually your eyes may be opened, but I doubt it. Thanks for sharing.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Brandon

      troll

      February 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Somebody

      Pete, "blacks" come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior like everyone else. White, black, brown, pink with purple pokadots. Jesus came to save EVERYONE because EVERYONE–including you!–needs a Savior. Whitney Houston and the people at the funeral today didn't have Christianity "forced" on them by their owners. They recognized their need to be saved from sin, just like I did, and embraced the love and forgiveness and HOPE that can only come through Jesus.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • AGuest9

      How was this written by a troll? It is the truth!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Edward

      Pete, it's nice to see that at least someone "get it". Get out in nature, see what is dear and should be enjoyed and respected. And then start your week being kind to others and making the world a better place. THAT is what Sunday mornings should be about.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • SCGirl

      God does not NEED you or anyone else to bow down to HIM to MAKE HIM feel good.....HE doesn't NEED anything from you....we NEED HIM!!!!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Maxto

      Dear Pete,

      I know you say what you did out of love, but the truth is "black" folk have always been a part of Christianity and Judaism from the beginnings of Christianity and judaism. Its just that history has had a way of twisting things and not telling the truth.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Nature equals God

      Um, Pete, who made that "nature" you love so much? I'll tell you. God!! He created you and everything you see around you. Why? Because he loves you and me and wanted to give us a beautiful world to enjoy. He doesn't "need" your worship, but he does want to be your God. Not to rule over you and treat you like a possession, but to have fellowship with you and enjoy you.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • berto

      Pet you need to do a bit more research before making statements such as this. Check out these books (and there are more out there:
      Saints of Africa-Vincent J. O'Malley
      African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa
      Frederick Quinn
      African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Woman
      Camille Lewis Brown

      February 18, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Gloria

      Pete,

      Because of you, I a non-churchgoer will be in church tomorrow and I will invite my Atheist friend to join me. Whatever it was that happened today I want to be a part of it. Thanks again,brother.

      February 18, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  6. Amy

    That something is powerful. I felt it too in my living room. I wish that more of that something were allowed in classrooms because today's youth need that something to hold on to. Thank you.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  7. Joe Illiinois

    What a wonderful tribute to Whitney. Thanks to the family for allowing the world to share in this. This goes on in numerous African-American churches in America, so I'm surprised you haven't seen services like this on any one of the many religious networks on cable. The only difference is Whitney was a star, and many starts showed up to pay tribute to her. RIP Whitney.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  8. Tony in GA

    This was incredibly well written piece Mr. Prothero. You hit it all right on the head. Well Done!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  9. deanne

    I foudn the service to be really uplifting. Ive been interested in attending a baptist service like this, but in all honestly , i feel intimidated to go being a while girl I feel like people will be secretly laughing at me lol..I assume this is not the case though, so may try it out one of these days

    February 18, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Dr. Moira

      Deanne, I am a PK and a woman of Color AA, YOU are always welcome in any Seventh Day Adventist Black or White Church and you will not be laughed at. If you are ever in Los Angeles I promise if you come to Breath of Life Seventh Day Adventist Church in Inglewood ,Ca you will be welcomed with open arms!!! The Church is predomintaly Black but we have members of all races who are just as at home there as anywhere else. Find a Church in your community of our faith or any Black Church of any faith an I know you will be welcome. Heaven will not be segregated and we can start that here. Now remember if you come to a SDA Church we worship on Saturday The Sabbath Ex: 20:4-8. Hope you will visit one day soon Saturday The Sabbath or Sunday at our Sister Church's.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Chris

      Hi Deanne,

      I believe that if you decide to visit an African American Church, (Depending on the Church), you would be welcomed with open arms.I know that at my church in Dallas, where I am a minister, when we have visitors, we make sure we make them feel right at home (No matter their race). The whole church experience is more about how to spread the message of Love.
      There are quite a few black churches that have a hand full of White, Hispanic and Asian members in their congregation (And they are just like family) They feel the love and are a very important part of the whole church experience.

      Come on out and experience the Lord Deanne

      Chris

      February 18, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Mo

      Your reply touched me. i am a person who happens to be black.........i live in Chicago, my church is smaller than Whitney, but the feeling is the same. i felt so at peace for Whitney, reardless of how she conducted her life, she LOVED THE LORD and was not afraid to die. Her funeral helped me, sounds strange but true. The choir at my church now sings LET THE CHURCH SAY AMEN and i play it all thru the day. If you are ever out this way, please email me and you will have a friend to got o church with. BE BLESSED AND L;ET THE CHURCH SAY AMEN. (mosample@hotmail.com)

      April 21, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Mo

      Deanne,

      my reply was for you...forgot to add that!

      April 21, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  10. donell

    great story!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  11. Robin

    This article is beautiful. However, I must respond to some of the comments regarding the length of the service. This service most importantly gave Praise, Glory, Honor and Thanks to God. Just out of curiosity, what do you think we will be doing when we get to Heaven? The same thing. Praising Him forever more... So my suggestion is, if you plan to be there, which I do and I hope you do too, you might want to get used to it! Be Blessed Everyone. Whitney, we will always love you!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Dr. Moira

      AMEN!!!!! There is not time length in Praising GOD!!!!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  12. Love triumphs death

    It was an amazing service. Echoed Whitney's faith eloquently by all the speakers.
    And yes Love has triumphed over Death and what a sermon that was by Rev Jakes.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  13. Reniko

    Thank you, Stephen Prothero. The service was beautiful and I'm sure Whitney wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

    Sending prayers to the Houston family.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  14. Opal

    I completely agree and was hoping the media and public would take note and make light of the wonderful spirit felt throughout the service. Another gift from Whitney Houston to the world – the reminder of power of faith, belief in a Higher Power, and how important it is to cherish each and every single day as the gift that it is.

    Blessings, all!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  15. Smiley

    Thank you for writing a wonderful piece! It was a great and memorable homegoing service– and I hope others are inspired to prioritize.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Ken

      You have stated it very well Smiley. Steven...very good commentary! You are right. "It sounded like truth" and it was "Truth". Whitney has gone home.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  16. Imagine that

    I'd prefer a church service centered around Christ rather than skin color. ( Not saying this one wasn't ) But come on, really ? Black Church ? Way to go on twisting it into a color thing.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Nakia Jones-Ofallon,il

      @ Imagine That

      I dont know age, however this discussion is not about "Black" it is about roots and homecoming for Whitney Houston.
      P.S. just so happen she is African American.
      This comment is meant to be sincere not sarcastic

      February 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Luther

      Are you so in denial of different cultures within our own country that you could not appreciate a well written piece? He was celebrating the difference in a very respectful and informative way and I applaud him.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Credenza

      It is so sad that you missed the whole point of the article.

      That service was a wonderful example of the failure of stereotyping blacks in America. They are a living, genuine people who love God and aren't ashamed to show it. Rest in peace Whitney and God give your family comfort.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  17. caribbean queen

    thank you. it was a beautiful service. could have done without the likes of td jakes and r. kelly, but an overall tasteful and appropriate send-off for whitney. thanks to the houston family for sharing this moment with all of us. particulalry enjoyed alicia keys's voice and stevie ('love's in need of love'). kevin costner spoke from the heart as well–he should be proud of himself.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Deep North

    I hope your daughter heeded your words and tuned in. Very nice commentary. Thank you.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  19. Andi

    Thank you, Stephen Prothero, for the lovely commentary. It's good to know that you and your family had the chance to visit a church's predominately African American congregation. In college, I wrote a paper on the 7 or 8 greatest religions of the world and found it very interesting. Thanks again for visiting our church. I'm certainly going to get your book, "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World."

    February 18, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  20. Kimberley

    First off, my condolences to the family, friends, loved ones and fans of Whitney Houston!! Beautiful Service!! I'm (sadly) not a church goer but I am proud to call myself a christian and I love GOD deeply (unexpressably). If I could find a church like this in my area, I would gladly attend regularly, even if I would be the only white face! All the love in church was felt through my TV, it was amazing and I am grateful Whitney's family allowed a camera!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Dr. Moira

      Kimberly you are welcome to any Seventh Day Adventist Church of any color and I promise you will find a spirit in the Black SDA Church like any other Black Church in America. If God is truly the center of the Church you will feel his love through his people Black or White. I love my Black Church who is partly mixed. We worship this way based on Cultrue not seperation. In our Church all are welcome but we all have different ways of worshiping but know you are WELCOME anytime all of the time. Find a Black Church anywhere and if the Holy Spirit is truly part of their Church life you will feel what you felt and saw today. Whitney was human like us all and flawed and yet she know from windst her help came from The Lord and not man. Whitney loved God and more so he loved her more as he loves you and me. So find a Church and fellowship with the saints waiting Christ return so we can be reunited. God Bless and good luck see you at the Right hand of the father in that New Jeruselm!!!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:40 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.