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. Greta

    Well said. It was a rare opportunity (for many) to experience why many of us love going to church.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • tea party

      folks go to church to date ,flirt ,talk bad about others,pretend to be faithful and religious, Church is a social gathering of people of like skin color and like back grounds....

      February 19, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  2. Carrie

    I am an agnostic, but I love the black church service. I first went to a funeral of an african-american friend years ago, and I was so amazed and touched by the emotion and participation in the service.
    I may not be much of a religious person myself, but I definitely felt like the black service exemplified what worship should be.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • tea party

      I am agnostic too, I do agree that watching some black preachers and heavy set sweating black females dance around can be entertaining

      February 19, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  3. To Stephen

    Great article. I had the wonderful experience of being exposed to white churches and black churches as a child. My mother is biracial and my dad was black (he passed). It made me more open to other races as a whole and appreciate the differences in races. I can honestly say that we were raised in the churches we attended; both white and black. They showed us love.
    Stephen please take your kids to different churches of different races. The experience will open their minds as it did mine.
    God bless you!

    February 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  4. Whitney Fan

    The Houston's decision to hold a true home-going service was a respected and correct one. I loved the simplicity of the service. It was not a grand production intended to honor a mega star. It was a celebration of the life of a friend, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a niece, an aunt and most importantly, one of God's children. So many people have expressed very negative, disrespectful and tasteless thoughts about Whitney. Today's tributes from those who truly knew her proved that she was kind, generous, giving, funny, human, scared, insecure. She was all the things we are. She was human. Yet so many people want to bash her because of the choices she made. I wish she'd been stronger and that she'd made different choices when it came to coping with her pressures. However, she should not be vilified for her choices. Her personal decisions were hers. I just wish people would accept the fact that she didn't always make the best decisions and just move on. Let her and her family have some peace. Let's remember her in the light in which her friends and family presented her. Underneath all the negativity the media CHOSE to share with us, there lay a beautiful, warm, generous and joyous spirit who gave so much to the world. Can't we just say thank you and pray for the strength of those she's left behind?

    February 18, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • tea party

      she was all things...a diva singing thug loving baby mama alcohol abusing,drug taking Christian lady

      February 19, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  5. Lisa

    This is a nice article and very well put together..very honest. Thank you.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • tea party

      Yes nice artical depicking racism,hipocracy,in all "black white churches"

      February 19, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  6. Enoch

    "Black church"? The church is called New Hope Baptist Church. Is there a "White church"? Anyways, the whole thing about Bobby Brown leaving the ceremony, BB left WH in 2007 when she needed someone most - the guy was not there to take care of the mother of his daughter when she was still alive. Does it matter now whether he cares or not when she is gone? R.I.P Whitney!

    February 18, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • keren

      Enjoyed the article through and through. Thank you and I also thank the family.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • keren

      ...its okay to call it a 'black church" my goodness.... there is a difference... lets celebrate those differences! Rejoice in the Lord always and again i say and again i say rejoice! let the church say eeahhh mon (amen). lighten up w/me

      February 18, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • markus

      actually there is...have you been to a traditional Catholic funeral service? or for that matter, just a regular mass???

      If you watched the service today, can you honestly tell me there is no cultural divide?

      February 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Freethinker

      Yes, Enoch, the Black Church. What part of that was not clear? In 1963, Martin Luther King said Sunday morning at 11am was the most segregated hour in America, and that has largely endured. During slavery and Jim Crow, blacks were not allowed to worship with whites though they were supposedly worshipping the same God. During the hundreds of years of worshipping apart different and separate cultural traditions prevailed. White church services tended to ressemble those in England, where the majority of non-Catholic immigrants to the US originated and Black church services tended to ressemble worship services from Africa, hence the call and response tradition visible throughout the African Diaspora on several continents and many countries. Currently, there is a lot more fluidity and people are free to attend the church where they feel comfortable regardless of race, but let's not pretend we don't understand a term like "Black Church". If you know American history, you should understand the term.

      February 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  7. buvv

    God does not make mistakes. CeCe sang yes Jesus loves me, let the whole world sing yes Jesus loves me.
    The amount of people tuning in to this service, around the world, can now say and believe, Yes Jesus love me.
    Not about Nippy its about saving the lost souls.
    Whitney was blessed by God, her sudden passing is a message to the rest of us, wake up.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • tea party

      @ buvv...that post makes no sense ....just like all religions

      February 19, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  8. Debra Dorris

    Stephen I really enjoyed your article. After watching the service I had two thoughts. Yes, Sunday morning in America is the most segregated time when we as christians are worshipping the same God. However, God brought us together today like only he can and he did it through the lens of CNN. Also, he reminded many of us that tomorrow is not promised so choose him today. Many times we ask God WHY? We recently had a Sunday School lesson about Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery (young men from a christian home) and we learned how God turned that situation around for the good. O the forgiveness and love of God! It reminds me that I am always looking for that one sweet perfect christlan person – but God keeps teaching me lessons through people with flawed imperfect lives. This is good because it also reminds me to look to him for he is a very present help in the time of trouble.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  9. Ben

    Great article. Beautiful service. RIP Witney.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  10. Lisa

    Let the church say Amen

    February 18, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  11. Debbie Thibodeaux

    I thank Cissy Houston and the family of Whitney Houston for letting us see this beautiful, spirit filled service! I believe it is exactly what Whitney would have wanted. It gave us a view into the world Whitney grew up in, the world that made her loving person she was, and where she acquired her magnificent voice. I feel better in knowing this Whitney rather then the Whitney the media and pressures of stardom took down. This was truly Whitney.
    I thank the Houston family for not making the loss of Whitney a media circus but a chance to see God and celebrate her life, as it should be. I thank the New Hope Baptist Church for the spirit they showed the world. Their example should be one those in Christianity follow; speak His word, worship him in song, for as Dr. Marvin Winan said in his sermon "the gifts that we have are God's gifts or us. The life that we live is our gift to God."
    People need to consider what gift they have given God with the gifts that He gave them. We have all seen what Whitney has done with her gifts and we are all better for it.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  12. Chris

    Well said Stephen. I appreciate this article. Thank You.

    February 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  13. Mya

    I applaud you, Stephen, for writing this article. Whether it is said out loud or thought in the corners of our minds, God does exist. I'm very greatful and thankful that there are individuals out there that, along with you, have had the opportunity to experience Him on today, and my prayer is that that 'something' as you called it, which is the Holy Ghost, God is Spirit-form, continue to visit others, as well as yourself, not only on today, but everyday. We try and act as if there isn't something greater than us, but God DOES exist and we all need Him in the worst kind of way!

    Again, thank you!

    February 18, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Aaron

      Well said.

      February 18, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
  14. SisterSource

    Well said, my Christian brother!

    February 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm |


    February 18, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Saved from WHAT??? It all ends when you die. Nothing is going to save you from that. Religion plays on your sense of mortality. Wise up!

      February 19, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • AGuest9

      Saved from WHAT??? It all ends when you die. Nothing is going to save you from that. Religion plays on your sense of mortality.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:50 am |


    February 18, 2012 at 9:58 pm |


    February 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  18. ANGEL

    I didnt know there was such a thing as a Black Church.. Do Black people have a special religion that I'm not aware of!!! Anyway, RIP Whitney Houston, may your soul finally be at peace!

    February 18, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Mary Graham

      BECAUSE many black people have a different approach to worship than white people do, which was the point the entire article was making! Even within religions where there are white suburban congregations and inner city congregations, there is a difference in worship styles. I think it is very nice, and all races should see what the other races churches are like.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • np

      I agree with Mary and if more people had an opportunity to experience the energy
      and positiveness of such services a lot more people would be going to church including
      me. I wouldn't miss Sunday church for any reason.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  19. Melvin Phillips

    Psalm 116:15 – Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. I thought it was an excellent service and great article Stephen Pothero. Let's try, try, to keep the unity and love going between all races. I'm game, any one else?

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

      I am in Melvin. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  20. Kristie

    Stephen. That "something" is called the Holyghost spoken about in Acts Chapter 2. It's a wonderful thing!

    February 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
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