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. Reality

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

    February 19, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  2. Carmen Goodman

    I do not think anyone is referring to the Black church as a denomination. It is called that because the majority of the members are Blacks. Unfortunately, racism still exists in America, and people of like color perfer to worship together. This is mostly due to the fact that many churches can be exclusive, and unwelcoming of people that are different from themselves. So, people go where they feel comfortable. I do not think that Jesus Christ is very pleased with His chruch,as it stabds today. Nor will He be until we all get our acts together.

    February 19, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  3. Hope

    preach christ jesus2020.com to get saved

    February 19, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • sam stone

      free people don't need to be saved

      February 20, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  4. Joy of Sin

    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.


    Now, who in hell is going to help her dig out the poo? Ed Dobson!

    February 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  5. Hope

    i am a white person but highly appreciate and desire and like listening to black gospel music alot. i grew up with black artists and beelive that black peopel have some of the most beautiful voices. However i have to stand on the grounds of holiness of Lord. God is Love. we need a balance in church that preaches Love of GOd but we really needed gospel to be spoken strongly at this service cuz that is what Whitney wouold have wanted. This was there one chance to reach 14 million people with what true christianity is about. Gospel and how people can be saved. We miust preach holiness to and not water down any part of bible. God is LOve and God is HOly. One thing i think that is on minds of many but maybe they dont say is why would whitney church have let her go down hollywood path which led her to drugs, alcohol etc. Why did her church not speak bible and say you are not supposed to follow ways of world, follow ways of Jesus. Jesus didnt mix with world. he preached against sin and lust of flesh and what world offered. if you want jesus go to jesus2020.com

    February 19, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Hope

      and they needed to preach gospel of salvation very strongly and what true gospel message is but i feel they missed there opportunity due to fear of man and desire to please man more than read what true BIble says and preach the gospel to its fullnes. if we really wanna preach then we need to preach its full counsel of Love nad holiness and preaach gospel and not be afraid. Church has not be afraid to preach true gospel.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  6. Tonya

    To the believers, we all know what was displayed in Whitney's service. A respectful service recognizing the roots of a woman and how she was blessed in the house of the Lord. To the non-believers, you witnessed the enduring love of God and how no matter what you encounter in life and the struggles you must endure, that there is a greater "power" that protects you from the seen and unseen. To recognize your purpose on earth is to serve Him and be forgiven when you fall short and know that He will always be there to pick you up and dust you off. Much like the unconditional love of a parent to a child or loved one in need of support. While the media is magnifying the death of a celebrity, Whitney's service and the actual tributes, not news
    reports, to her musical accomplishments are reflections and sincere displays of appreciation for her gifts as a daughter, sibling, mother and loved one for both the girl from Newark, NJ and the singer that gave many artists someone to admire musically. televised or not she would have had the same service with the same guest list because it represented her life and her musical roots, as Cissy Houston's daughter, Dionne Warwick's cousin and Aretha Franklin's goddaughter.

    February 19, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  7. Dawne

    Courage comes in many forms...hats off to you for writing this peace...now let the healing begin.

    February 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  8. G

    Peole love to point out how different they are from other people rather than point out the common threads, especially when race is the central point. This is NOT the Black church. This represents SOME Black churches. Not all Blacks are Baptist, or even Protestant. Not all White churches are stoic as I was once led to believe. I am Catholic, fully confirmed in the Church. My church had only Black parishioners, Black priests when I went as a child. My hubby was raised Episcopalian (also Black only). We are both Black and have Black parents and grandparents. I lived in a Black neighborhood that had both traditional Catholic and an Episcopal church (one each) within walking distance from my home. My grandparents were raised Baptist and sang directly from the hymnals much like an Episcopal Church. There was no call and response, no ad libing, no standing and waving and they lived in the woods of the South. The piano and the Hymnal were all you got. My MIL's & FIL's Episcopalian funerals were dictated by the protocol of the church and lasted less than 1 hour each. No testimonials were to be heard there. The family got to choose several favorite songs OUT OF THE HYMNAL. The church sent reps to tell us EXACTLY how the program would go, according to church protocol. We could not have called in Alicia Keys to sing if we had wanted to. Now that I live in a predominantly White neighborhood, if have found that most of the Pres churches in the area are evangelical, complete with hand waving, Hallelulahs and/or tongue speaking. Even the Friends (Quakers) have an Evangelical church down the street. Don't think that enthusiastic worship is a "Black" thing. Don't get me wrong, I value diversity of worship, I sang with a community choir that took me to many a Black Baptist and Pentecostal Church,Things are changing, don't label. The largest Evangelical Catholic church is in Houston, TX and is mostly attended by Hispanics. There is more than joins us than what seperates us, is my message.

    February 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • S. Reed

      I took the writers' piece as a view into A Black church. Not THE Black church, not the ONLY Black church, but A Black church. And whether or not it's your experience, it IS what the majority of the Black church exxperience is in America. Born out of slavery in the deep south with all of the African nuances mixed in. As Blacks were freed, migrated or were born into another experience, some of these traditons were left behind or abandoned altogether. There are still some Blacks who won't give an 'Amen" out loud in church even if their lives depended on it. Too reminiscent of a time they would love to forget. They see it as a shameful past best forgotten. No disrespect of other beliefs intended here, I'm sure. But in my humble opinion, them folks had CHURCH!!

      February 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • G

      o disrespect, but don't be so naive. This piece nor the coverage on CNN by Don Lemon is about A Black church, it was about THE Black Church. Are you sure that this type of service is what MOST Black's experience on Sunday, or you assuming? Not all Black Baptist Churches worship in the style of New Hope and there are MANY Blacks who are non-Baptist, even non-Protestant. I am no religious slob, as I have said, I have attended many different denominations of churches over the years and spent a significant and memorable time singing in a choir that visited Baptist churches and Pentecostal churches that were much more enthusiastic in their worship than what occured at Whitney Houston's funeral, I was at it easily once a week for several years.

      What I am protesting is the generalization that any group of people are monolithic. There is not THE Black church. There is not THE White church. There is just church, God's church in which people worship however they feel most comfortable.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
  9. god s u c k s little boys c0ks

    too many blackies in this world
    if more would die off like Whitney=we all would be better off
    blacks do more than enough pot, crack, cocaine,heroin,meth etc...how come their race wont die off!!!!

    February 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • One Of God's Children

      Why Don't You Do The World A Favor And Just Stop Breathing !

      February 19, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • JUST ME

      What a sad, pathetic creature you are.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Kalvin Jefferson

      I wanted to write something that would have been incredibly evil to you and about you,However in the spirit of Jesus Christ who died for my sins on the cross at calvary,all ican say is may the lord Jesus Christ bless and strengthen you and remember: He died for your sins as well!

      February 19, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  10. Hope

    would have liked to have seen real gospel of christianity be preached. 14 million people watched. gosple of salvation and how they can be saved wasnt preached. jesus2020.com....this is we want everyone know how to get saved

    February 19, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Carmen Goodman

      Please be reminded that this was a funeral service. Usually the eulogies given are nice words about a person. If you recall, Rev. Winans spoke about the importance of serving God and not money or other things. He also spoke of God's word as a manual to teach us how to perform by first seeking the Kingdom and it's righteousness. That too is the message of salvation. If you don't serve God,you can't be saved. Let's be thankful that Jesus Christ was acknowledged and His name lifted during this service. Sometimes we Christians are so busy finding fault that we miss God in the process.!

      February 19, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  11. Black Barbie

    Thank you for your reflection. I appreciated Whitney's service. I appreciated her mother for sharing it. A funeral, as you commented, is also an opportunity to give witness to Christ who may not know him. For some, attending a funeral may be one of the only opportunities to attend church and to hear the gospel message.

    Whitney's service is also an opportunity to witness the unconditional love of God. Though she struggled and stumbled, very publicly, at times. It is her confession that "Jesus Loves Me," that lets us know where she stands with God. So though her life came to an untimely end, Jesus says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any one opens up, I will come in to him and sup (or abide) with him."

    Ms. Cissy Houston gave the world an invitation to Christ by letting them know that even her frail daughter was accepted by God and you can be, too. Though imperfect, she loved and accepted God: God loved and accepted her. That is the essence of the gospel.

    On another note, please check your liturgical references. Baptists do not cross themselves. Catholics "make the sign of the cross" or cross themselves, as you noted.

    February 19, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Karen M.

      The congregation was composed of many. Some of the many crossed themselves.

      February 19, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Some Lutherans also cross themselves. So what?

      February 19, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  12. Carmen Goodman

    Thank you, Mr. Prothero for your post. With so many misconceptions about the so-called "Black church", and "Black Theology", I am so glad the world could see what really goes on in the Black church. Many thanks to Cissy Houston for allowing this, while sharing one of the most difficult and personal experiences of her life. I truly hope that the going home celebration of Whitney Houston touched many hardened hearts and minds, and opened them to the collective and loving Spirit of God. We serve an All Mighty an All Loving God, who loves all people, and all He asks in return is that we love Him and each other. Whitney's funeral was an exampe of that agape (divine) kind of love. It shouldn't take a tragic death to bring people of all colors, social classes, economic levels or religions to understand that this is how the world should behave, and how it was designed to be. I believe in honoring Whitney, we truly honored God. I am sure Whitney is smiling down on us, with her great, big, beautiful smile, by Jesus' side – both of them saying in their harmonious voices, "Well done!"

    Thank you, Cissy for sharing Whitney with us and showing the world what real love is.

    February 19, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Dawne

      Beautifully said!

      Thanks again for allowing us to take up this topic together...now let's take the next steps towards living in a community that is reflected in that service...God's earth is wide...

      February 19, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Kalvin Jefferson

      There is no denomination called"Black church" there are because of the paterns of segregation churches that are predominently African -American.Because of the odious southern tradition of Jim crow,segregation even in church services happened,even though it says that Jehovah is no respector of People and that in the body of christ,you do not talk race or nationalism.There is neither Jew nor Greek,Nor bond or free,nor male or female,All are one in the body of Jesus Christ.But in heathen America even the so called Christians when the person was Black,they had to be seperate.Ah the traditions of man versus the Gospel of God,Which one will win?

      February 19, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  13. the warrioress

    How very beautifully you described her service. I loved it. Thank you for this summary.

    February 19, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  14. Will0059

    From my FB page yesterday.....Well – if I haven't learned anything else today that is that I definitely "...don't want to wait until I have 1 foot in the grave or 1 foot on a banana peel" before I find GOD!

    February 19, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  15. Dawn Adekoya

    I would like to personally thank CNN for allowing Whitney Houston's fans to actually feel like we were attending her service. I thank you for refraining from comments and any interruptions during her church service. I am also grateful that the Houston family let the world be apart of the service and providing an answer to anyone who ever wondered what is it like to attend a "black" church service. Although it is a shame that to this day we, as a people, are still dividing ourselves by race, especially when we all serve God, but nonetheless, Whitney and the Houston family opened the world's eyes to how we celebrate a Christian going home.

    February 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • cher

      I too felt like I was at the service and also agree with dawn that it's a shame we are divided by race when we all worship the same god. It was a beautiful service for a beautiful women.

      February 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  16. Tiffany

    And let the church say, Amen! Thank you for your reflections.

    February 19, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  18. Blessed

    AMEN...well written and honest article!

    February 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  19. rmstch

    An excellent article and truthful. I grew up in a church-going family and was in the church building Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night, no matter what. It wasn't until I started attending a black church of the same denomination much later in my adulthood that I felt like I had been to church. Being the only white member has its humorous side...I always joke with my brothers and sisters in Christ that it's easy for the preacher to tell when I'm not there, but I always leave church now uplifted, joyous and determined to try to be a better Christian and person.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Dawne

      Excellent comments!

      Thanks, take the children...let them see and know that the soul of the whole world is at their feet. Community is life.

      February 19, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. Lynette

    This is a well written article. It says it all!

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

      yeah right "black" church racism drugs ,hipocracy religion ghetto lifestyle drinking heavily,thug loving diva crap

      February 20, 2012 at 12:19 am |
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