By Mark Ellis
They held a church service at New Hope Baptist Church as a home-going for international singing star Whitney Houston. At her family’s insistence, it was all about the Lord.
“We welcome you to our home,” said Pastor Joe A. Carter. “We’re gonna have church today,” he exclaimed, “because we believe in a mighty God.”
Family members, celebrities and dignitaries crammed the front pews of the church, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Clive Davis and many others. Yet the nearly four-hour service maintained a traditional Baptist flavor by intention, avoiding media pressures to turn it into a Hollywood production.
Almost every speaker and every song lifted up Jesus and His love for Whitney, reflected by her enduring love for Him – even as she went through deep valleys in her life.
“God is in heaven and with him is one of our angels,” said Cory Booker, mayor of Newark. “As the heavens reverberate with joy and gladness, may we understand that though we weep now and weeping may endure through the night, joy cometh in the morning.”
Pastor Carter gave a soulful, emotional reading of Psalm 90 as the white-clad New Jersey Mass Choir gently swayed and sang in the background. One of the choir’s lead singers followed by singing the 23rd Psalm.
“Lord we welcome you!” Pastor Carter continued. “Have your way. If you love the Lord, clap for him. If you love Jesus clap for him. Hallelujah! Glory to God. God be praised. God be praised. Oh my! My! My! My!” he shouted.
There were millions watching CNN’s live coverage of the service, including many fans who had never set foot in a church. To their surprise and amazement they were thrust into a Spirit-filled Baptist gathering for the very first time. Piers Morgan, one of CNN’s anchors for the event, admitted afterward he had never witnessed such a service.
“We are gathered here today, because when you’re a child of God you’re dedicated at an altar,” Pastor Carter continued. “Your fellowship in the body of Christ is at an altar. When you make your wedding vows, it’s at an altar. And when God has spoken and you’re laid to rest, we celebrate at an altar.”
“This is how we celebrate,” he told a watching world. “We have church! If you love God, clap for Jesus.” He read Psalm 22, followed by John 14: “In my father’s house are many mansions…”
Singer Dionne Warwick, Houston’s aunt, introduced Rev. Donnie McClurkin, a gospel singer and pastor, who sang “Stand,” accompanied by the choir. Rev. Jesse Jackson stood behind McClurkin with his arms folded and a mournful expression on his face.
Actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry recalled a time with Whitney in a restaurant in Atlanta when she was surprisingly transparent. “I saw this heaviness come upon her. Before I could get words out to encourage her, she would say, ‘But the Lord…’”
As Houston continued to pour out her heart to Perry, he prepared once more to offer consolation when she said, “But my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His amazing grace…”
Perry was struck by the way God sustained her through difficult times. “There was a grace that carried her down from heaven through Miss Cissy Houston, a grace that brought her up through singing. She wasn’t even supposed to be able to speak much less sing because of an incident that happened to her as a child, but there was a grace that kept on carrying her all the way through,” he said.
“One thing I know for sure, and this is more important than anything she had ever done in her life — Whitney Houston loved the Lord!” he declared, as cheers echoed through the church.
“As I think about her there is a Scripture that keeps burning in my heart. I keep thinking about the Apostle Paul in Romans when he said ‘Nothing shall separate me from the love of God.’
“No matter how high she went in the stratosphere, no matter the depth of struggle with what she had to go through, it still wasn’t enough to separate her from the love of God. The same grace that carried her through, carried her home.”
As Perry concluded his remarks, some in the choir cried out, some nodded their heads, and a few raised a hand in the air and pointed upward toward heaven as if to say “She’s right there in God’s loving arms.”
Then gospel singer BeBe Winans sang “I really miss you.”
“There will be tears on my pillow / it will be hard to let go / I know there was a great celebration / and Jesus was waiting when she left / Jesus was waiting when she left here…”
Bishop T.D. Jakes comforted Houston’s mother Cissy with a message about every believer’s hope for eternity. “The Bible says that love is stronger than death. In the first family, when Cain killed Abel, it seemed like death had won. Noah escaped the flood and still he died and it looked like death had won.”
“There was a fight that led to the cross and then to the grave…so they started having a party on Friday night. It was one of those weekend parties. It lasted all Friday and into Saturday and it looked like death had won.
“But early Sunday morning the Lord rolled up his sleeves and said wait a minute, and he snatched death and took the sting out of death and the victory out of the grave.”
He looked at Cissy and said, “tears may fall, the phone may stop ringing, the cakes and pies will stop coming, but don’t you dare think that death has won…Love will last forever, for God is love.”
Actor Kevin Costner spoke lovingly of his work with Houston on his film project, “The Bodyguard.” He said he shared a private bond with her because they both grew up in the Baptist church.
To the young women who aspire to follow in Whitney’s footsteps, Costner said, “I think Whitney would tell you, ‘Guard your bodies. Guard the precious gift of your own life. Then sing your hearts out, knowing there is a lady in heaven making God Himself wonder how he created something so perfect.”
Then singer Alicia Keys sang from the depths of her heart at the piano, “It’s a long long way to heaven / but I got to get there…/ can you send an angel? / Can you send an angel? Please send me an angel…”
Sony music mogul Clive Davis, who became a father figure to Whitney in the music industry spoke, apparently moved by his experience in the church. “I can’t tell you how moved, touched, and inspired I am today, and feeling the spirit in this great church, and feeling the faith. It’s helping me with my grief and my heavy heart,” he said.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime,”Davis continued. “You wait for a face, a smile, a presence like that for a lifetime. When one person embodies it all, it takes your breath away. That’s how I felt in 1983, when your daughter, Cissy, stepped forward and shattered me with her version of ‘The greatest love of all.’”
“Is there any performance of the Star Spangled Banner that remotely compares to hers?”Davis asked. “She found meaning composers never even suspected was there.”
Davis said he visited with Houston in his “bungalow” at the Beverly Hilton shortly before her tragic death on February 11th. Houston’s death is currently under investigation by authorities in Los Angeles. On his visit with Houston she showed no indication she had anything other than hope for the future.
“She played some music from ‘Sparkle,’” he said, referring to Houston’s film project due in theaters in August 2012. “I played some music that was special to me. She turned to me and said, ‘Clive, I want you to know I’m getting in shape. I’m swimming an hour or two a day. I’m committed to get my high notes back. No cigarettes, plenty of vocal exercising. Clive, I’ll be ready by August.’
Davis said he would hold her to her commitment to be ready by August.
Ray Watson, Houston’s brother-in-law and bodyguard, referred toHouston’s well-worn Bible she insisted on carrying everywhere. “She had a Bible I called ‘raggedy’ because it was so torn up. She had to have a Bible every place she went. She had passages marked all over it.”
Singer Stevie Wonder was led to the piano and sang “Ribbon in the Sky” with new lyrics dedicated to Houston: “In 1963 we were blessed so incredibly / with a sound so incredibly / Whitney’s voice from a choir in heaven… / what God gives is never a coincidence…you were a voice from heaven’s choir / your love will always be a ribbon in the sky / an angel from God’s choir of love / I want to give praise to the Father for Whitney / that angel from God’s choir, from God’s choir of love.’
After Wonder sang “Love’s in need of love today,” he may have surprised some when he referred to the Lord’s imminent return. “God’s going to come and we better be ready. We had better get it together quickly,” he said.
Pat Houston, Whitney’s manager and sister-in-law said, “God carefully considered the time for her to come to another level of peace. Her life was sometimes misunderstood, even by herself,” she said. “When it came down to it she always knew it was between her and God. I don’t care what was going on with her, she stayed grounded in the Word.”
Pat told Whitney that as the singer approached her 50s, she should take more time for to live for Whitney. Whitney replied, “Because He lives I can always face tomorrow,” with a huge smile on her face. Pat said Whitney’s love for God was “absolute.”
Gospel singer CeCe Winans sang “Don’t cry for me,” then led everyone in the church and around the world in singing an emotional “Jesus loves me.”
Rickey Minor, Houston’s music director, said her memorable version of the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl was inspired by God. “We wanted to make the Star Spangled Banner special, but God was leading us along the way because we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to do it, but God said ‘Go forward, go ahead.’”
Rev. Marvin Winans, a member of the gospel singing Winan family, gave the eulogy, and his brothers and sister joined him as they sang “Tomorrow.”
As the service closed, six pallbearers hoisted her silver casket on their shoulders and slowly moved up the red-carpeted center aisle. A recording of Houston’s most popular hit, “I Will Always Love You,” played in the background.
Houston’s mother Cissy cried out, “My baby,” as she moved up the aisle behind her daughter’s body.