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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. Susan

    It was a wonderful service. And it really did bring "church" right into my living room. Rev. Winans really got to me. Prioritize. One. word, so much information. The music was great, too. I could truly see and feel the spirit there today. I would love to go to a church like that. I am white. It was absolutely beautiful. God Bless Whitney and her family.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  2. Kim

    What a nice commentary. It's very sad to me that some people are so hateful and spend their time judging even the dead. Please know that you will be judge with the same measure that you choose to judge. I hope none of you have ever used bad judgement or made mistakes.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  3. Marrissa

    Thank you for your great article. I was greatful that CNN was the vehicle used to "shift the atmosphere" of the world today. Regardless of how people felt about the service, they cannot deny that God showed up!

    February 18, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I didn't see a single sign that any god showed up – just a bunch of people pretending some god exists.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • dre

      HotAir, keep it movin'. You probably can't see the toilet, either.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • David K

      Angels and the lord showed up! Amen my sister

      February 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Eric

      Thanks for attending the service today HotAirAce. You see, what you don't realize is that YOU were presented with GOD today too.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Must admit I only saw the last 20 minutes or so, only because I thought it would be over and CNN would have been back to real news. So I got to watch a fat, sweaty bishop ramble on about The Babble being some kind of manual, and then Don Lemon try to get a few of the attendees to say something interesting about Bobby Brown causing an incident. Definitely no sign of any god(s).

      February 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  4. Jody

    I went to church today and was deeply moved. Even though I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, I haven't been inside of one since the 80s, and that was for a wedding, and have never been inside a black church although I have many black friends. Now I feel the need to worship among others and will be seeking a congregation that is simple and direct in its faith and joyous in its praise.

    I regret that Whitney Houston's death brought me to this surprising place, yet it is a fitting testament to her enduring power to affect the lives of others. RIP Whitney–you will always be in our hearts!

    February 18, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      It is called compassion Jody. The main thing that Christ left for us. Enjoy and I hope you go to another service soon.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  5. nappyme

    Your commentary was lovely. Thank you. And thanky to the Houston family for allowing us to view their "private" homegoing for their daughter. How generous. Again, thank you.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  6. Dave

    I'm a white guy who prefers rock and roll and while I've always admired and thought Whitney had an amazing voice I don't own any of her music. I can't explain why, but I felt much more sad than I thought I should have this past week, and something compelled me to watch the service on CNN today for 4 hours, I couldn't turn it off. It was one of the most inspirational and beautiful things I've ever seen. I found myself tearing up the entire time.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • vfm

      I can relate Dave and I am Black.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Eric

      Dave (and others), today was one of those days that we all hope for (in our own ways). We were taken away from the normal day-to-day bull and treated to a truly worship-filled religious experience. No politics. The media kept respectfully at a distance and for most part they behaved – although I just don't get Don Lemon continuously trying to find someone to join him in spewing dirt at the funeral by constantly asking about the Bobby Brown incident. I am a Christian, far from perfect, but trying every day to live a Spirit-filled life, and that home-going service was just as was announced. Church! Amen.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Deborah M

      Dave, I hear what you're saying but you do realize that rock n' roll comes from Blacks right? If not then it's time to educate yourself and realize that rock n' roll in any form, especially the type you're alluding to is it's best imitation of the Blues. If you take whatever song you like best and slow it down, it will be a Blue's rift. The reason why you can't see a Muddy Waters or a Howlin' Wolf or the fact that first rock n' roll record was recorded in Congo Square in New Orleans is that White folks tend to co-opt things they enjoy and by the time they finish lying about who did what you'd think rock n' roll came only from Whites but nope, it came from Blacks, off the plantations. Elvis did NOT record "Ain't Nothing but a Houndog" it was Big Mama Thornton. Elvis was about "give a White boy a Black sound and make a million".
      All of the inventors of Rock n' Roll in it's earliest forms were Africans in America and ALL of them went to church services like this that lasted longer and went into it even deeper. I'm glad that you were uplifted and compelled to see this service. Now it's time for you to embrace that fact that Whites didn't invent rock n' roll even though they love it. The noise, the energy, the sound comes from being forbidden to beat the drums, playing the Kora (now flattened to a banjo) and so on.
      I don't say this to show hate, I say this to make you realize how something we do that's so natural gets taken over and NONE of the credit is given to the originators. That song "Shout" ( you know you make me want to shout, stick your hands up and shout) is all Church. If you spent a half hour living what we endure you'd know this is a natural release.
      I hope you do spend time at various Baptist and AME churches and that you find a spiritual release. You'll find that Black preachers tend not to shy away from America's problems. Most will welcome you. Don't let one or two sourpusses turn yo off, they're everywhere. Peace, Learning and Love Dave!

      February 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  7. AGuest9

    Now, THERE was a cla.ss act! Where is Gary Carter's funeral being televised, CNN??? What charities did Whitney work for, or did she just do it all for her dealer?

    "He did everything with enthusiasm and with gusto, on and off the field," said Mets chairman and CEO Fred Wilpon, President Saul Katz and COO Jeff Wilpon in a statement released after Carter's death. "His smile was infectious. He guided our young pitching staff to the World Series t.tle in 1986 and he devoted an equal amount of time and energy raising awareness for a mult.itude of charities and community causes. He was a Hall of Famer in everything he did."

    February 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Deep North

      she sponsored at least 30 different charities. Do just a little research first....then rant!

      February 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • komodo

      This isn't about Gary, Moron. You're angry because he didn't get the coverage that Whitney did. Be upset, but don't demean what she meant to others. Your "dealer" comment was completely out of line. Of course, you're some nondescript jerk who hides behind the anonymity of the internet. Get over yourself.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • dre

      Appreciate your sentiment dude, but you are a trip. No one asked you anything, nor do we care that you cannot appreciate the life of a singer that we all liked. She had an illness, which presented itself just like the symptoms of other maladies, such as cancer, diabetes, congestive heart failure, renal failure, etc. We do not ridicule people who suffer from those types of diseases, but most of the illnesses that result are preventable, as was hers. There are many celebrities who pass on as a result of illness and disease, but it is the spirit of the individual, not the body, that we celebrate. Keep that in mind as you continue on your mentally self-destructive rant about people, things, events or life occurrences that you cannot understand.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Eve

      To AGuest9: Get your facts straight. Houston gave lots of time and money to different organizations and causes. before you try to bad mouth someone and point out their faults look within yourself first. Houston may not have been perfect, but who among us is. Just because CNN decided to publicize her funeral and not someone else is not reason to try to diminish this woman and her accomplishments. After all, she is a much bigger and more well known star than Gary Carter. It seems you have other issues than the fact that she is being honored for her life. Perhaps you need to look at yourself.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • mrphilly1

      Do people outside of baseball really know who Gary was? Cmon man are you that stupid or are you just trying to start an argument?

      February 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • AGuest9

      No, just REALLY disgusted that people are trying to turn this burned-out drug addict into something positive and using their imaginary god to do it with, so far as getting the state of New Jersey to lower their flags to half-staff, and CNN to waste THREE HOURS of live broadcasting on it. This was a head of state. How many soldiers were killed this week? How many police officers? How many fire fighters? How many people THAT MATTERED? Oh, THOSE people – they were all forgotten. None of THEM got live funerals on CNN. Iran's is posturing to start WWIII, but CNN was busy with this nonsense.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  8. sandra

    I personally don't see "black Churches" as we like to call it. All I see are sinners crying out to the same God who loves us all. The difference is, our ancestors earthly struggles were different.Which meant they needed to feel the presence of God. They need a place to sing with emotions and weep opening and not be ashame.

    What I got from this furneral was not what the media was portraying of Whitney. I got the image of a very fragile spirit who gave and gave until she couldn't give no more. No matter how strong and determined she was, her spirit was what attracted many to her and it was that spirit that gave up. There wasn't one person in the Church who didn't say it...Whitney loved her fans.

    How befitting that her final farewell to us as she was being taken out of the Church was that she will always love us.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  9. Picque Will

    Wonderful article, Stephen. Two months ago, my mother went to be with the Lord and my co-worker, who is a white Presbyterian, attended her homegoing. Her comment afterwards was, "this is the best birthday I've ever had. It was a true celebration of life. -And I want a homegoing. None of that funeral stuff for me, I've got to have a home going celebration."

    We, black people are a celebratory group, and this service today confirmed "The Reason Why We Sing".(Thank you Kirk Franklin) We sing because we're' happy... we sing because we're free. His eye is on the sparrow, that's the reason why we sing." Whitney Houston's life brought the world to church. Awesome words for an awesome service.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  10. Joyce

    The funeral service was beautiful and uplifting. I just pray that the cause of death is something natural. I am so tired of them talking about her addictions. Truth be told we are all addicted to something and have all fallen short. Didn't they dog her out enough in life; or is Don Lemon going to go to the grave site and continue to try and find every little negative thing he can. Last Saturday when the news broke of her death, Don Lemon constantly talk negatively about her. I have gotten to the point that I turn my television when he is on.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  11. Dwayne

    It was a moving service, my favorite part was the duet version of "Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga and Jesse Jackson.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  12. Mills

    Beautiful service, beautiful coverage on CNN (especially by Don Lemon), and beautifully written opinion piece.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  13. Nakia Jones-Ofallon,il

    Things I Adored about Whitney's Service:
    The area where the Church sat, showing how rooted and grounded one can be in their church, no matter how tall of a pedestal "the world" may have us on.
    Donnie Simpson-opening with commentary
    Tyler Perry-speaking on "what he knew was constanant with Whitney" She LOVED THE LORD
    Bishop Jakes- Speaking on how Love wins over death
    Kim Burrell- personal reindition of Sam Cooke
    Kevin Costner- stating that Whitney "YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH" for the Lord which is all that matters, you dont have to worry about Judgement and Fear.
    The end with the casket being Lifted by the Paul Bearers

    February 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  14. AGuest9

    Truly sad to see that so many had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, but watch a funeral for a junkie. Humanity is truly pathetic!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Probably all watched Prince Whoever's wedding, too. Sheep!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • BJ

      Thanks Mr. Perfect!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Mills

      Oh, I'm willing to bet many had PLENTY to do on a Saturday, but they took their time out to pay their respects (even if it was via television) to their fellow man....actually, what a wonderful display of humanity.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Maxto

      God loves even you with all that you spew & He is ever forgiving. So, you won't spoil our joy today or tomorrow.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Maxto

      We are sheep, and the true Sheppard watches and smiles on us. Thanks for reminding us.

      Ps. We love you!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Deep North

      Maxto...No he doesn't. He will let AGuest9 be turned over to his reprobate mind when he spews like that,,,,,as the Bible says.. Only guest can change that!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • kenneth hubbard

      What is sad is your life , by your comment you are full of hate.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • KP2012

      WOW where is your humanity regardless of what she did she is still someones child, mother, sister, aunt , cousin or friend and would you discard your loved one if they had fallen you would try to help them rise up and love them anyway inspite of their fails. We all have our demons and she certainly had hers show a little more respect that your words may hurt show more compassion for you would want it if you were hurting

      February 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • APreacher's voice

      You're reading a religious blog condemning those of us who watch her funeral...you should have been watching to maybe learn something or felt something from the music and ministry that took place. We were celebrating her failures but the life and the gifts she left behind and painful price she paid for her success.

      February 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • sophia G

      CNN, Please delete this idiotic comment from AGUEST9, It is truely sad when anyone takes on a life of drugs and even worse when a person dies at such a young age....Yeah people had other things to do, but most chose to pay their respect, inspite of her past drug issues, we still are to have compassion because it is her life, life is precious, she wasn't always that way, she apparently had self issues that took her to that path, I watched the funeral and feel saddened that she didn't get a chance to make that comeback that she so needed. I pray for her family.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • maxwell

      AGuest9...You sure are desperate for attention.

      February 19, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  15. Denny

    I think this counted for Church tomorrow.HA!... I loved every moment of it... I felt like I was let in one of the most private celebrations... I went away knowing Whitney is with Christ Jesus... I go to a mostley black church, but there are alot of other races that attend.. and when you are in the presence of the LORD all you see is the color of the spirit and hearts of people who has the same belief as you and that makes them your sister or brother and thats all that matters..LOVE conquers all!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  16. Brenda Ende

    Thank you.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  17. Ruth HL

    Stephen–thank you for your reflections. I am a white pastor who has been primarily mentored by Black pastors. As I posted on FB to a friend today–"Nobody does Homegoings like the Black Church because no one knows like the Black Church what it is to live between laughter and lamentation" (I say this historically and observationally). And to "Imagine That" the "Black Church" has been so defined because of segregation–and the historical necessity.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • APreacher's voice

      Amen to that and well said!

      February 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  18. Rubleaux

    To those wanting to visit a church with a predominantly African American congregation, I challenge you to attend just once. You may feel a little shy walking in, but before you leave, I guarantee that you'll feel more love and acceptance than you could ever imagine. You may not have a second visit, but I guarantee that you won't forget the first. By the way, every predominantly white church that I've ever visited made me feel incredibly welcomed and loved.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  19. Chris M.

    Great commentary Stephen Prothero, I grew up in a baptist church similar to this one where my fathered pastored for 30 years, the power that I and millions felt threw the television today is a power that our ancestors (SLAVES) were able to create threw songs and affirmations in order to keep going. AMAZING !!!!

    February 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      Chris, I understand that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson wants you to believe that every black man or woman in America was a decedant of a slave, but that is just not true. Even in the 19th century that was not true.

      Praise Jesus, that this horrible practice only goes on in a few countries now. Let's work together to stop it globally.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  20. tony

    The unselfish love and respect for others and dignity aspect of faith. What a shame that it takes such a sad occasion to make it newsworthy over the recent political aspects.

    February 18, 2012 at 7:24 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.