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. Too bad!

    If only Ignorance were against the law!!!!

    February 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  2. JackJ

    Actually it only brings the world into THAT black church. It is in no way an indication as to how all black churches are. Just like viewing a segment of a predominantly white church represents how ALL white churches operate.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  3. Zman

    The black church is powerful. Society and media segregate blacks by class. The church is one of the few places that you can find black millionares, middle class, and poor worshipping together. It is a shame that times of tragedy seem to be what draws our connection the closest; however, the funeral services offered to some of you an unfiltered view into our church. It is neither liberal nor is it conservative at its core. It is .PRO-US. and PRO KINGDOM. Politics and media will never destroy it. It is a solid foundation in our community. The church is held sacred and holy in the hearts of all walks of man. Many whom the world would strongly condemn were praising the Lord in spirit and in truth. And they did so freely. Unapologeticly. The media and society will not give grace and mercy to our people, but in the church they can get it. Very powerful.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  4. tea party

    "black church" religion racism go hand in hand

    February 19, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  5. C.R.

    This article reflects the true survival of the African/African American in this country. Without that strong upbringing and belief passed down from our Ancestors, how would we have survived. Praise GOD this Sunday morning!

    February 19, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • JohnQuest

      C.R., I don't think so, consider the following: a Black on Black crime is higher than it has ever been, Black owned business and property is lower than it has ever been. Teenage Pregnancy is higher in the Black community as well as the abortion rate. A black child born today has a higher chance to end up in prison than college, drug addiction, alcoholism, spousal and child abuse and marginally higher in the black community.

      If your God actually existed, he/she/it doesn't give a crap about us or we are just the way he/she/it planned it, either way since we are suppose to be created in his/her/its image and therefor we are a reflection of the deity, he/she/it is not worthy of worship.

      Or is it more likely, that there are no Gods and we got so wrapped up in what "God" does for us that we no longer do for ourselves? Strange, the world works exactly as if they were no Gods, I often wonder why people continue to think there is a God, especially when their own common sense tells them that a God Could not exist?

      February 19, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  6. Roger Sparks

    God looks on the inward man which is created in His likeness as a spirit being. Yes Whitney had her challenges in the flesh and yes addiction is a mental & physical sickness like any other sickness that eventually takes lives. What was real in her spirit is what God looks upon. He is the final judge. Amen

    February 19, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Flinders the butler

      All gods are created in the "likeness of man". Why didn't you say "created in HER likeness" ?

      February 19, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • just sayin

      All idols or false gods are created in the image of man. God created man in His image.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • JohnQuest

      The Greeks, Romans, Africans, and all other Gods were not considered "Idols" until they died out, the same as the God/s you believe in. Soon the Gods of the three Abrahamic religions will go the same way with the same results. As people become more knowledgeable about the world/universe the need for a God diminish. What would you think of a person that still believed in Zeus, whatever you thought of that person would you really vote for him or here as President, I think not no matter how wise, humanitarian, or politically savvy.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • just sayin

      Idols were identified as idols by those who knew God, i.e. the Hebrews from the very beginning. An atheist or a Roman might have been lacking the intelligence to know the difference but there were always those among the chosen people who knew the Truth.

      February 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • sam stone

      just sayin....man made god in his image

      February 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 19, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Mirosal

      You believe your 'god' is omniscient. If 'it' is, then prayer is moot, because the outcome is already known. The game is rigged.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • just sayin

      If you knew God you would know the fallacy in your simplistic statement.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Mirosal

      Occu.m's razor. What fallacy? It's simple logic.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • just sayin

      God is not limited by your interpretation of His attributes. IF you knew God you would know how wrong YOU are.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Mirosal

      Just which parts of the word "omniscient" are too complex for you to comprehend? And what makes you think that YOUR 'god' is the right one, out of the thousands that have been worshipped since our species has walked the earth (about 200,000 years)?

      February 19, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • just sayin

      You can't comprehend God and you ask me about omniscience? All knowing is not all dictating. God can allow changes because He is working with an eternal time frame. God Is , that is all there is to it. Other gods are idols or false.

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

      In your deluded mind, perhaps it does, but not in the real world.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • just sayin

      God's world is the REAL world.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  8. Yolanda

    Thank You Cnn. That Was a Beautiful Service! R.I.P Whitney Huston.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  9. DeAndre

    EVERYBODY went to church yesterday. If you tuned into Whitney's "Home Going Service" YOU WENT TO CHURCH BABY! While our services do not last four hours (mostly 2) The energy, the shouting, the love.... EVERYTHING displayed yesterday is a consistent, normal every Sunday routine in the Black Bapstist, Penecostal and Methodist church. The Church brings the best singers because people are singing from raw emotion. You tell a story when you sing about life experiences. This is something vocal training and private lessons cannot do. Thats why Whitney was known as "THE VOICE" her upbringing in the church. THANK YOU Cissy, for opening the eyes to millions of Americans about the BLACK church and keeping it OLD SCHOOL...AT CHURCH where it should have been..NOT the Staples Center. May Whitney rest peacefully.

    February 19, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • Flinders the butler

      "best singers" ... unless you have any good taste in music, then you're in BIG trouble.

      February 19, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • C.R.

      The Black Church needs to go back to and keep it's raw gospel roots....Mrs. Cee Cee Houston made sure that Whitney knew the powerful word of GOD!

      February 19, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • tea party

      need to get back to no roots ...need to change their black ways ...no more robbing,baby mama making,cane slinging,Ho fo drugs womens,in black communities with racist "black churches"

      February 19, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  10. Ironicus

    I'm not even going to read this article. That's how bad I know it's going to be with a ti.tle like that. Good grief.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • joan wilson

      today's eulogy made me renew my faith in GOD.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • JohnQuest

      joan wilson, it may be wise to ask yourself, Were was God when this Young lady needed him/her/it? It seems a terrible tragedy to die at such a young age from a stupid accident, it appears that God didn't help her (or anyone else) that much.

      Admittedly, I'm a non believer (yes, there are plenty of us Black folk that let that fantasy go), but in truth I see nothing in the concept of a deity to believe in.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  11. Reality

    Buy her records. Enjoy her singing. But as with Elvis Presley, condemn her wasting her talents with drugs and booze!!!!!

    February 19, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • synoptic12

      † We judge no one. Elohim is the judge of all.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • Reality

      And one of the three branches of the Federal Government is?

      "The Supreme Court and all other federal courts have the judicial authority vested in them by the Const-itution and by subsequent legislation."

      Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/federal-government#ixzz1mq00qt9v

      February 19, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  12. synoptic12

    † We come in the name of Yahshua the Messiah, the Son of Yahweh. We have asked Our Father to give us the words to speak of one, Whitney Houston. It was truly refreshing to see the faith and Spirit which was present at the New Hope Baptist Church. A new hope is what we seek in which was in abundance with His flock at the gathering of the rebirth of Whitney. We have been refreshed as well by the Power of the Holy Spirit which lives in all of us.
    Our Father searches the minds and hearts of everyone, as He has looked upon Whitney, and found the love, beauty, and faith in a continual state within her heart. His love is so great, the decision was made, to uplift Whitney to a higher level. The harvest can come at any hour, and at any time. Whitney was ready and Our Master knew this full well. Seeing that her heart was already prepared, full of love, and caring, the redemption was truly originated to uplift Whitney's soul.
    Even though many rewards were bestowed upon Whitney on this earth, Our Father saved the seventh and final achievement as being reserved unto the crown of righteousness for Whitney. This is the greatest gift of love which Our Father has promised those whom follow after Him. We shall truly miss the beauty, the hope, and the light which Whitney brought to this earth, given by One to her, as it pleased Him.
    Our hearts shall be with Whitney always, for we shall always love her, as she loved us. We thank Reverend Joe and the choir, for there is much faith which remains. As Jesus has said, Heaven and earth shall pass away but my Words shall never pass away.
    Whitney's work was compete by the standards of Our Father as her heart remained in unity with One.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Flinders the butler

      Yahweh Sabaoth, the god of the armies ...


      February 19, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  13. Halo of Flies

    Whitney was a class act!

    1. A large hunk of e.xcrement so thick and hard that it cannot be passed through the a n u s during de.fecation. It usually takes on the size of a small baseball or a child's fist.

    2. A severe case of f.ecal impaction usually found in illegal dr.ug users who do crack c.ocaine and crystal me.th.
    During second episode of "Being Bobby Brown", Whitney and Bobby are talking about co.lon cleansing, when Bobby says to her, "I've seen worse," he says. "I've had to dig a do.okie bubble out of your bu.tt."

    Bobby even admits that once when "her t u r d was too big" for her to ex.crete, he had to pull it out with his fingers.


    February 19, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Halo of Flies

      And you are telling me that a man who would dig poo out of his crack-ho wife's butt can't even get a seat at the funural? That is just wrong.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • To This Idiot

      You are lame and have no friends. Log off now!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • Halo of Flies

      Do you have a problem with the truth my child?

      February 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  14. Lol

    White churches are funny cause the people have no sense of rhythym so when they try to sing and dance they move like robots LOL.

    February 18, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • tea party

      "white church " Black church........??? proof religion is man made...religion is an evolutionary result of cultural ignorance and inclusiveness.....whitney was a typical gosel singing church going .....diva alcohol drinking,drug doing Christian lady

      February 19, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  15. Jerome Green

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful article to help the general public interpret the depth of Christianity in the African American culture and that culture's unique method of experiencing and expressing its collective acknowledgment of the sustaining presence and love of God. Piers Morgan, one of the CNN commentators, repeatedly asked what one should call the keynote pastoral given by Reverend Winans. In an interview given on Friday, Reverend Winans said that his remarks would be more appropriately called a homily than a eulogy. In the vernacular of the community of the black church (of which I am a member), many call it "preaching a funeral".

    February 18, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • tea party

      thank you for not mentioning the depths of poverty,car jackings,drug dealing ,single mothers ,crack heads,children gangs,in Black communitis filled with "black Churches....

      February 19, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  16. Yvette Hawkins

    What a WONDERFUL article Stephen. I echo everyone else who said thank you for your words. I am so proud today. Along with being proud of you for writing this article, I am proud of my African American church family for showing the world how we praise God. I am proud of CNN for taking the chance of not being politically correct in our sometimes too liberal society. I am proud of Mrs Cissy Houston for telling us that if we want to be a part of this service, than meet her at the alter. I am proud of my Christian family for choosing to wave the blood-stained banner of our Lord in this mean cruel world. Finally, I am proud of my Heavenly Father who through Jesus Christ keeps his promises. He said "every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord". Now thanks to Ms.Whitney Houston, you can't say that you don't know. Amen lights and walls!

    February 18, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • tea party

      Yvette is so proud of her " black church" the black kids shooting one another just watch 48 hours read papers speak to police detecitves...Yvette is so racist and proud of her church in ghetto areas full of drugs,thugs,prost ho's ,whitney H type church going ladies

      February 19, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  17. Debra

    Great article...all things work together for good. Rest in PEACE, Whitney

    February 18, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • tea party

      yeah right...drugs drinking "black church" religion racism untimely "sinful ' death go together like bread and butter

      February 19, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  18. Tom Ricciardi

    This writing was tripe and a spectacle. Way too long like the ceremony. The service was dignified and about as nice and mellow as a music/hollywood thing can get. I found it surprising that the script writers and event managers motivated by all the "influencers" who were there, couldn't find a way to script something about the dangers, risk, physical destruction, and family harm of drug abuse.

    I am certain that all these celebrities could have found a dignified way to put something together. At one time she was an idol. Instead of all the youth, fans, and general public seeing that all these people who loved her couldn't find a way to say something about this. If for nothing else to let the teenagers know that Whitney's people weren't just in denial about this and were not sidestepping the importance of it by aggrandizing her and her love of the lord. That's great, but without the messaging on the devastation of drug abuse for youth seemed to be a conflict and inappropriate signals. The writer, Stephen Prothero, just missed the whole idea just like all of Whitney's celebrity family and people who loved her so much they stood by while she killed herself.

    February 18, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • dance....

      We all have our addictions....cell phones, soda, alcohol, the internet, drugs, gum, books, music.... and we all have a way of dealing with them. Per what I know, she died from prescription drugs. She openly acknowledged her drug addiction...and most people that have talked about her death have hinted on that. But the funeral service today was a celebration of her life, her music and her love for the Lord. Turning it into a "sermon on drugs" would have been an inappropriate way to celebrate her. Funerals aren't the place to admonish people for their short comings

      February 19, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • Jamie

      Thing is Tom, the point of the service wasn't to put together a public service announcement but to memorialize their beloved daughter, mother, sister, cousin, and friend. Whether or not it met your personal "standards" of dignity and ostensible concern for social issues is irrelevant. If many of these posts are any indication, the service hit all the right notes – literally and figuratively.

      I'd say the lack of empathy and crassness you (and a number of others on here) display is as much of a problem in society today as any substance abuse problems.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • Tom Ricciardi

      Jamie –

      You miss the point too! unfortunately, it was turned into a celebrity fest. Way too overdone and a denial of the issues to celebrate fame. Not a good message. She was an idol for youth and a known drug addict and alcoholic. Most of those in attendance had turned their back on her when she needed family and friend intervention. The only celebrity who I am aware of who tried to help her and actually spent time with her years ago trying to get her in to rehabs and programs was Mel Gibson. They invited hem, but he couldn't attend. Most of the people you saw on television today were in guilt and denial. All celebrities at her level have a social responsibility to youth and fans. Just like corporate America has social responsibilities. Wake up Jamie and smell the flowers. A drug addict is a classic lost soul who has turned their back on God and taken over control of their lives and relies on another god. In Whitney's case s was cocaine, grass, crack cocaine, and alcohol combined with prescription drugs. Why are you in denial about her something so obvious as her drug abuse and self destructive behavior? many of those people at the funeral wouldn't hang with her anymore because she was so abusive through her addiction and constant high and unpredictable behavior.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • Mariah

      It was a funeral. Not a public service announcement. In a home going you celebrate the loved one's life. If you couldn't appreciate that you were more than able to change the channel or turn off the television. Her family celebrated her life they way they wanted. When you lose a loved one and you are responsible for the arrangements, you feel free to make it an indictment on their character flaws, since you feel so strongly that those are the things that should be dwelled upon at that time. You forget that Whitney was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin. And clearly you don't care. But that fact does not change for those who loved her. In short, get over your self-righteousness.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Sheyla


      Please share all of the mistakes you have made in your life so that at your funeral your family and friends can educate those, who choose to listen, on how to not make the same mistakes versus rejoicing on the good things you did. Don't think that if you didn't do drugs, your mistakes are better than hers. We all make decisions that we regret, even if it is a simple lie, but it does not mean that it needs to be constantly discussed and definitely not at a homegoing service. Take note, Whitney had a home going service not funeral. There is a difference.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  19. The Mean Old Devil

    It is so funny to me that while Whitney and I are here in hell doing drugs and fuking in public (she loves a n a l), the humans are celebrating her in a church. "Oh, she loves Jesus" "Oh Whitney is a giver" Well right now, I would have to agree with that! That is right Whitney, keep on given sweety and there willl be more crack where that came from! Damn girl, you should bathe once in a while! Oh well, it is hell.

    February 18, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Rasta

      You give real credence to the idea set forth by people like Malcolm X who said the only real devil you will ever see in the flesh is a bigoted white man. So I really believe you are the devil.

      February 18, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Halo of Flies

      Rasta my child, you will see me too. And then your opinion will change! The Devil declares no race or intollerence! All are welcome. I look forware to meeting you soon. Your racisim guarantees it.

      February 18, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Rasta

      I have met many like you. Nothing new. I have defeated them all! Don't wait. Bring it! Hot lava for the likes of you! Truly a weak heart blood-claat are you! Be gone Lucifer! Babylon your throne gone down! Sellasie I the First! Read it and weep you reprobate heathen! If I see you I will burn you out anywhere, anytime! You think you are slick with your posts, but in REAL LIFE, I will f*** the likes of you up! Drive a stake thru your blood-claat heart!

      February 18, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Dean of Demons

      Rasta my child. Your fear and anger cannot alter your destiny. We will be together you and I. Your god has already writtin it in his book. Perhaps you have not read the holy scriptures. I wait for you.

      February 19, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • tea party

      tend to agree with you sir...

      February 19, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  20. Casey

    Nice article and service on television today. It's good for the Country to have this exposure to the Lord God. Also... the blog is nice and respectful today... nice change of pace from the usual Catholic Bashing vitreol we are subjected to. RIP Whitney Houston.

    February 18, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • tea party

      "black Church" racism,religion and close minded folks go hand and hand

      February 19, 2012 at 11:34 am |
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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.