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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. N2it

    It is too bad that Whitney spent a whole lot of time in church growing up, but seemed to be empty in death.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  2. Jacquelyne

    I attend a very diversified Assemblies of God church in the Kansas City area. I am black, the pastor is white. The congregation is about 60% black 38% white and 2%other. And we have "church"! Every sunday. It is a bible based church and all are welcome. I enjoyed this article. I loved the service. It was exactly what happens in a black church at a black Homegoing service. I am so glad that Mrs. Cissy Houston shared this moment with the world.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  3. Cheryl

    Simply Beautiful. God Bless You.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  4. ann west

    😡 Whether it's From Eddie Long , Jimmy Swaggert, The Priest of the Week,, Black, White, Whatever All Churches have one thing in common. Blatant Corruption

    February 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • Jacquelyne

      So does the world.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  5. William Marlowe

    Fantastic service. I watched the whole thing and I never go to church but it made me want to.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  6. Dre

    Eric, this shows that maybe you don't know how BIG God is. I am United Methodist and we sway. If you have never had the Holy Spirit move through you in the way that he moves through me, we know that God allows each of us our own way to worship and praise his name. Don't think so highly as to think that what Baptists do or what was said in this article is any reflection on the way that OUR, YOUR God moves, however he moves and where ever he moves.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Eric

      I think the Baal worshipers had the same kind of service before their Gods. Better be pretty sure that the Holy One of the Universe is accepting of every kind of worship before we begin to say that He approves of this mess. The Bible examples of worship seem to dispel this kind of "worship?'

      February 18, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  7. Jamie

    Thank you for this lovely article. I didn't get to watch the whole service but I hope I still can someplace, in it's entirety. I did get to hear R. Kelly's rendition of "I look to you" and it gave me goosebumps – it was that beautiful. I've thanked God many times for bringing the powerful and moving soulfulness of African-American culture into my life and I too must make it a point to attend a church service like this one. Actually, I can't imagine that I haven't already. May Whitney rest in peace and condolences to all her loved ones – she will be missed.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  8. CeeE48

    Thank you CNN for broadcasting 4 hours of the celebration of Whitney Houston’s life. The service was a great tribute to her. But, it is just too bad that your producers feel it necessary to always seek out the negative to play up and try to over shadow such a positive celebration. May God bless the Houston family!!

    February 18, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  9. tareco

    I am a black female, Catholic, but had other family that were Baptist. I was taken to the Baptist church many times and just honestly never cared for it. I don't like that type of worship but to each their own. I watched the ceremony today and those feelings were confirmed. I prefer quiet and an environment that is conducive to reflection. I find the "Amens" and such to be very distracting–it just isn't my way to worship. However, I did greatly enjoy Cece Winan's song. I thought it was beautiful and such a beautiful delivery as well.

    I guess one comment I'd like to leave you all with is that this is not the way ALL black people chose to worship so I really resent it being called "the black church" since that implies otherwse. As far as Sunday mornings being the most segregated-that's something else I've always hated to hear because again, it implies something that isn't true. People choose to worship in their own way. Because of segregation issues, worshipping separately may have started out for that reason, but the bottom line is that today, I would liketo think it's because of worshipping preferences (as in my case), rather than because of race.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Jacquelyne

      This is so true. All black people do not worship the same. Personally I prefer teaching to preaching.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Eric

      I couldn't agree more. Very well stated.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • JaMel

      I agree that this is not how all blacks worship. The black community is way too diverse for such an umbrella statement of representation. However, this was a traditional black baptist homegoing service. The service was reverent – I felt like I was right back home in Detroit.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  10. NW

    I was still in HS when Whitney appeared on the scene. I bought every song she ever sang. I was active duty when she sang the National Anthem–it gave me goose bumps (and still does now). I can recite almost every line from "The Body Guard". Somehow, someway, something went amiss. She was not perfect (and WHO IS). She had her demons...we ALL do. Mr. Prothero, your words ring true. Today took me back to church in SC and it felt 'right'. Today was a testament to all who witnessed- to "us" she's Whitney–but she was a daughter, a mother, a sister, a friend; a life and a love lost. I cried today for those who KNEW her. I cried today for all the words she sang that echoed so many times in our lives. I cried for all of us. May JESUS give her peace in heaven she so wanted on earth; and as Costner said, Lord, Let her know she IS good enough.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  11. ITELLYOUWHAT

    Baptism is associated with accepting Jesus and being saved by grace. Being saved by grace means you should have received a punishment for your sin which hurt other people. The problem is that Grace tends to be put above The Greatest Commandment Matthew 22:37. If Grace were above the Greatest Commandment, then the devil could be forgiven and he would be in heaven. The devil does not love God and this is the reason he is not in heaven. The purpose of following the law is to show others that we love God. Unfortunately, those that view Grace above the Greatest commandment are using the law as a means to judge others as being not good enough to follow it. This is the common argument against the Jew. Love or judge, the choice is yours! Matthew 22:37 states you are called to Love and the law tells us how. Not knowing that God loves us is associated with our inherited sin from the fall of Adam and Eve. For God so loved the world that he sent his son not to condemn the world but to save it. Christ forgives our old sinful ways, since being born again is associated with a change in behavior because we now see that God loves us and therefore we now desire to love him. If grace is infinite, then it would not be a choice to love God. If grace is infinite, there would be no reason to change our ways and become a new creation or be born again. If grace is infinite, then God would accept evil and thus be evil. To forgive and not expect any change in behavior would produce more of the same behavior that the original forgiveness required.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Deep North

      But grace is infinite as explain by Jesus to Peter, when asked, "How many time should I forgive my brother?" 7 times....No Jesus said 7 time 77. Not a literal number.....but as many time as necessary..according to Jesus (The Word Incarnate).

      February 18, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Moon

      Can I get the Cliff Notes version of this? Good Lord.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  12. Asa

    Well said! You got it! But most of all you felt it! That's the power of the spirit.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  13. Deb

    Thank you for a well written article. I watched the service and was very moved by the whole thing. I've never been to a baptist church but it is now on my bucket list.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  14. Filiz

    As a Muslim women I tremendously enjoyed the service. I wish we had a different reason to see what a beautiful such service, I wish WH were there to sign. Whitney, I hope your all sufferings are gone and you are with Allah your savior Jesus

    February 18, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  15. Jason B.

    If you think this article was just about race, you so missed the point.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  16. Jason B.

    Well written article. For a woman who didn't serve God with her life, she served Him with her death. Either way, God gets the glory!

    February 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Felicia

      Jason, I beg you to please change your point of view. One cannot say that Whitney did not live her life for God...How do you know? Let me tell you a story. When I was a child I loved Michael Jackson, just loved him and in my 10 year old mind I would marry him like many little girls dreamed of. One day I heard he was a Jehovahs Witness and I wanted to know what that was. My mother told me one of her friends was a Jehovah's Witness, so when I saw her friend again I asked her some questions. Instead of answering my questions she decided to come to our home every wednesday and give me bible lessions. So, in effect God used Michael Jackson to bring me to the knowledge of Christ and to start praying. So you cannot say that Whitney did not live her life for God. We all make mistakes and we all fall short of the glory of God, but is faithful and quick to forgive us. So I encourage you to judge ye not by saying who did not live their life for God. What if God asked you Jason, how are you living for me, how would you answer?

      February 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  17. Deep North

    So once again, God can show how he can be triumphant, using WH's death and service to bring his Spirit to millions via CNN. Way to go God. To you be the glory and honor and praise...Amen

    February 18, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Felicia

      God give man a choice. He said Choose blessings or curses, life or death. He then said choose life. God gave us all free will and will not interfere with your free will. God loves Whitney and all of us but if you choose not to love him, trust him, have faith in him, don't worry...he won't force you to. Romans 8:28 says God causes all things to work together for the good of those who LOVE him and are called according to HIS purpose. There were people today who not only love God, but those who are looking for God, those who are lost, those who are seeking to know more about God or to see if he is real. So, while it pains him that Whitney died and her family are hurting, YES he will use this to bring people into a deeper knowledge of him, becuase that is what he wants most. Put God first prioritize and GET READY and watch God work in your life. Just give him a chance. You give everything else in life a chance people, jobs, why not almighty God who wants only the BEST for you and nothing less. Don't judge God based on people you may see and know who say they believe in God, find out for yourself. Give him a chance for yourself, I promise you that you will never regret it. For God says "Those who seek me with all their heart will find me". "Draw near to me and I will draw near to you."

      God really does love you and wants to make a difference in your life so you can be a blessing to others. Give him a chance.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  18. David M

    There's nothing like church in a black church. No one preaches like a black preacher. I remember when I was a teen, we would get out of church (white) at 8:30 on Sunday night. Some of us would go to a black church near my house and sit outside and enjoy what was happening inside. I later told that black preacher about that and he said I should have come in to see how God meant for church to really be. And yes, I'm white. But God does not go by color of skin or anything else. He goes by what"s in the heart. Too bad more of us don't do the same thing.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • N2it

      Martin Luther Kings voice and sermons are the epitome of a black preacher. But there is nothing like a preacher that can preach, teach and then burst out in song with a voice like Al Green (no pun intended). However, the only problem I have with the word "preach" is that too many black pastors and recently I have seen a lot of white pastors that seem to try to imitate black ones, turn a sermon into a circus or sideshow, particularly with the recent introduction of "props" interjected during the sermon. And even with all that, we still have to remember to NEVER be a respector of persons, not even Pastors (black or white) to the point that we worship them or emphasize their style of preaching, moreso than the context of the sermon. Some pastors present a show and when you walk out, you feel entertained ONLY – not SPIRITUALIZED which is the necessary ingredient of a sermon that too many churches are lacking.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  19. whatskrackin

    Wow you Preached Stephen! that was a word all to itself.

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

      Amen! I'm so tired of crying since Whitney died, but it's mostly for her daughter and her mother and us fans who'll miss hearing her live. We know she is singing in heaven, praising her Lord and Savior. I am so glad the funeral was televised...I thought about the fact that the pastor was preaching truth... evangelizing to the world, but it never occurred to me that many of them had never been inside an African-American church. It really is a culture in itself and a beautiful one at that.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
      • whatskrackin

        I wonder how many people around the world received Christ that day!!! God is still in control!! He is worthy!

        February 20, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  20. Eric

    Black church? Well maybe the black baptist church. Why not spend some time with black Episcopalians, Methodists, or Seventh Day Adventists for a more reverent approach to worshiping God. Not ALL Blacks scream and holler, sway, speak in tongues, jump over seats and run down the aisles. Not all blacks believe in singing praises to God with sacred words played to worldly nightclub syncopated rhythms. Trust me, the Creator of the Universe does not require a "hand" from us.

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

      So, let me get this straight, Eric. The demonstrative worshippers, those who holler, sway, "run down the aisles", etc., are not reverent? You can only honor God sitting erect and silent in the pew? Read your Bible son. King David danced as did so many others. Obviously, you're a religious bigot (yeah, I said it) who only thinks his faith is the "right" faith. So mindless. So pathetic.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • Matt

      Agreed. I hope my funeral isn't half as tacky and overdone. Half the people there looked like they were speaking to the cameras, not the crowd.

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

      What a nasty comment sounds like u are full of yourself instead of the Lord with that u just don't matter!

      February 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • tareco

      Thank you thank you, thank you!!!!! WELL STATED!

      February 18, 2012 at 8:59 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.