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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.

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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. Dr A

    Very thoughtful piece. Welcome to the black church - that "something" that was lurking was, indeed, the Holy Spirit. Interesting to me that some people loved Whitney, but not where she came from. The negative comments here persuade me that her mother was right to have a private funeral. It enabled those closest to her to grieve in a way that was comforting to them. Perhaps we can all move on now, and let Whitney and her loved ones be in peace.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  2. LR

    So you can basically do drugs in one form or another most of your adult life, marry a drug user, then get divorced, leave a teenage girl without a mother because of your behavior, and at your funeral be praised for what a great Christian you were. Am I missing something here?

    February 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Bonnie

      Yes you can LR, and it's obvious that you are missing something!

      February 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • LR

      Well in that case I am glad, and I intend to keep missing it, and instead strive to live holy, as He is holy, for we should not seek approval from men, but God.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • GLB

      Yes you are definitely missing something – perhaps you have never sinned.... perhaps you never misbehaved your whole entire life.... Being given a proper funeral and burial has nothing to do with your past problems in life... Whitney was a human being – who worshipped and loved Christ... many Christians around the world are not perfect but deserve forgiveness and peace... Stop the criticism and get over yourself!

      February 18, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • SisterSource

      Yes, you are missing the fact that ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God. But THANK GOD for forgiveness, grace and mercy. Our world would be a better place if we could all forgive each other more and pray for each other to overcome our shortcomings instead of castigating each other for simply being human.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  3. chwashin

    For those who may not be familiar with the things of God...The spirit that lorded over the service was the Holy Spirit; the presence of God in the earth. See the book of Acts to find out more about His presence.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • msyellarose

      Let the church say "Amen".

      February 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  4. Yikes

    Is R. Kelly the dude that pissed on some girl's head? Dude was gettin a bit out of hand with that one lol.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  5. wayhome1

    regardless of what anyone says, the power of Holy Spirit moved throughout our atmosphere today. as we who came together, each in our own places, a great number of people for 3 1/2 hours on 2/18/2012, were on one accord. Halleluijah and great glory to the Lord God Almighty!!!! may the fire as on the day of pentecost, fall fresh on us, in the Name of Jesus!!!

    February 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  6. N&W 1000

    Personally, I love these type services.

    You can be the biggest drunk, dopehead, gangsta rap killer, pusher, whatever...

    And everybody gets together and has a foot stomping, knee slapping, sin killing, devil chasing, blood bought, hallelujah revival meeting.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  7. JohnQuest

    I understand the history of the "Black" Church and all the good it has done historically but I think it has out lived its usefulness.
    I understand how good it feels to worship and to "believe" in a deity, but the bottom line you are talking\worshiping\praying to (no)thing there is nothing there. I would submit that most "Believers" know intellectually that a deity is only in their heads but still go to church for the sake of family ties.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • ann

      You have the right to your opinion, but not everyone agrees with you. It isn't always easy to respect the rights of someone to believe (or not believe) in something you disagree with, but I think it is a good thing to learn. Part of that respect involves not spending time trying to convince the other they are wrong.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  8. Mike, formerly from Syracuse

    Nothing more than MJ part 2. At least she wasn't a pedophile in addition to killing herself with drugs and booze. Why this has all the media hype is beyond me. Thousands of people who have died in service to their country the last 10 years haven't gotten 1/1000th of the recognition, and were 10,000 times more deserving.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • GLB

      That's your opinion homie - and for the record, Whitney gave 32 years of her life entertaining the world. Surely we can give back the love and respect for at least 1 more day. She sang to millions of people on stage and servicemen in the gulf... Remember her rendition of the National Anthem? She also raised millions of dollars singing concerts for charities. Fortunately, this service was not for you, but instead for millions of her friends, family, and loyal fans!

      February 18, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  9. JLP

    Any time we we have an opportunity to formally praise God, even at a funeral, we should take it. Someone`s soul might be saved because of it.

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

    That was a lovely thoughtful and right-on column Stephen. While watching the amazing tribute on television today, I too was thinking what a wonderful thing that so many people in the world get to visit a black church service for the first time today and get to feel the depth, the power, the joy and the faith felt by so many believers. I'm Jewish and it was my great honor to be there.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  11. Tracey

    The thing, that indescribable thing you felt was The Holy Spirit. And it was indeed a true homegoing service. I felt the spirit from the very beginning from the choir, to Ronnie McClurkin to Pastor Winans eulogy to them carrying the casket out to I will always love you. Simply beautiful.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Tracey

      I meant Donnie McClurkin.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • ML

      "I don’t know what to call that something. Sociologists have their theories. Preachers do, too."

      I do. It's a sensation caused by an increase in activity in the frontal-lobe region of the brain. That's not just a theory but a fact and can be demonstrated with biomarkers such as MRI which can measure such cerebral activity in hyper-religious people...

      February 19, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  12. Haitianus

    Very disappointed in this funeral service today. Too long, disorganized, unfocused, Too much dancing and clapping of the choir, choking lack of spirituality, no style , undignified. this was a disgrace. I don't know what to call it.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • M.H.

      God loves you and forgives you because you know not what you speak.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Maritza

      Thanks because you don't know how it's done in the Baptist church. Go to any Baptist church or COGIC church and you will see the same thing that you saw on TV today. That's how we send our loved ones home to be with the Lord and it's how why PRAISE the LORD!!!!!

      February 18, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Keawana

      you really dont understand

      February 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  13. just sayin

    Houston funeral centered on Faith, Courage and Love, solid Christian values.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • mreveron

      I was one of those people who hasn't been to church in 30 years and the Houston family brought me to church today. If the church I expenienced as a Lutheran, white child was anything like the church I witnessed today, I might never have left. I think the black community should be proud of how they brought love and light, faith and joy, honor and celebration to God and Whitney today. I think they showed us all something very precious and sincere, and "What the world needs now ........Love, Sweet Love" from the heart, with grace, dignity, class and style. In the word of an old Swedish hymn from my youth, "Though he giveth and he taketh, God his own doth n'ere forsaketh". Your service today was a testament of that to all of us. Whitney has gone home, but she continued to give and bless in her passing as she did in her living. Thanks to the Houston family, the black community and CNN for sharing truth, love and light!

      February 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  14. steve

    If I was a betting man, I would bet that 70% of those who attended the service were "packing"!

    February 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Latese

      @Steve...I read...I laughed...ignorance is bliss...so you prove...

      February 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • M.H.

      You are right steve they were packing their Bibles.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  15. om

    I would like to thank CNN for airing Whitney Houstons entire celebration today. I wish that Peirce Morgan would have not mentioned the Bobby Brown incident. Leave it to the taboloids.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      You might have a point. Ignoring the only real news associated with this event would be consistent with ignoring that there is no evidence for the existence of any god.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  16. Nick

    To all of the negative comments regarding a televised funeral, if it was so horrible and you don't like that it was characterized as a "black church" then why in the hell did you spend your time watching it? It's funny that there is so much negativity and hatred even when someone dies. How much can one hate or are you just that ready to die yourself?

    February 18, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  17. Nic

    Eric- Every black Baptist church is not the same. Many of these churches are led by pastors who are highly educated in Judaic studies. My pastor delivers sermons which include historical and relevant facts from the era of the passage as he is an excellent teacher of the Word. He's highly intelligent and a dynamic speaker. He doesn't do the extreme things however he does sing (very well I might add) and speaks in the traditional black southern sing-song dialect occasionally as the spirit dictates to him. This spiritual "hem hawing" is traditional and dates back to slavery. I'm 37 and I choose not to listen to the pop contemporary gospel as it does nothing for me spiritually either. I am very old-fashioned and traditional so I have James Cleveland, Dorothy Norwood, and Mahalia Jackson. The black Baptist church carries on the traditions that were formed out of struggle, pain, yet extreme faith. Now that our change has come, you don't abandon what got you there. As I agree with you that many black Baptist churches can be a little bit much, don't generalize all the churches. I'm uncertain why you look down on some of the events that might transpire in any church as the Spirit is to each his own. If you aren't getting excited in church where the mission is PRAISING the Lord, then you may want to reevaluate if you're being spiritually fed at whatever house of worship you attend. -Much love

    February 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Eric

      Just be sure of what type of spirit is leading you. Baal worship is comparable to the so called worship that goes on in these churches. Emotionalism is not a replacement for Biblical instruction and Christ like examples. Everything is acceptable in the church as long as the name of Jesus is inflected.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  18. Philip

    Was irreverent, disorganized – a tragic homage / disgrace to one of the greatest singers in my lifetime. I was disappointed and repulsed. In lieu of watching the service, I YouTube'd some of her greatest videos.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • DocMom

      Philip...do us all a favor and remain in your limited little world of YouTube so that the rest of us can keep marching with the respect humanity demands of us.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Eric

      Philip

      I pray for you. Trust me, if GOD is glorified and JESUS is exalted; then, the service was both relevant and highly reverent.
      Regardless of how people judges Whitney Houston, GOD has all the facts and HE raised her up and used her life to bring HIM honor even during this tragic time.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • YeahISaidItSoWhat?

      Phillip, you're the Darwin Award winner for this month, and will probably will stay in the running for the annual winner.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Philip

      Eric, save your prayers. /god's dead; not great.

      Small-minded? No, I like order, grammar, and honor for great people. Performers acting like they're at their own concerts instead of Whitney's funeral speaks to endemic narcissism and poor upbringing. People should have performed in the same spirit as Jennifer Hudson, when she sang at the Grammys.

      DocMom – stick to pediatrics and changing diapers.

      Thanks guys. 😉

      February 18, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • GLB

      Hey Philip – I really didnt want to reply to your ignorant comments, but I have to say this: This was a homegoing for a very spiritual and talented woman (whose family organized this by the way)... It was intended to give people, like you, an opportunity to worship, praise, and experience a celebration of life from the perspective of the Holy Black Church... and believe me, Whitney would have wanted this no other way!

      February 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  19. One4theMoney24theShow

    I hope that Whitney learned that to worship a "man" brings a whole lot of heartness and misery. Worse yet is to worship "ones ownself" to the point that depression overtakes you when the spirit of God should lead and guide you. You cannot experience the true effect and experience of God if you chose not to remain "sober" in mind, body and soul – no matter how much you think you are going through. There is ALWAYS someone going through something a whole lot worse.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  20. DTY

    Everyone has a right to worship GOD in whatever way they choose but today Whitney Houston brought church to the world. One can be Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Muslim etc however; its fact that there is a cultural differences between Black Baptist worship services and the white Baptist. It does not make anyone racist nor is it discriminatory; we just do things differently. Today what the world saw was a true black Baptist church service where the spirit of the Lord was present. Some prefer quiet more reverent acts while the Black Baptist church dance, sing, clap. David danced before the Lord as well as Miriam who took out her timbrel and danced. There is nothing wrong with our worship or anyone else's. At the end of the day, Jesus name was lifted today across the nation and received all the honor, glory and praise that he is due.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
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