NEWARK, N.J. — We will always love her.
On Saturday, Whitney Houston’s family and friends put on a production that trumpeted the famed and iconic singer. There was sadness, yes. And the tears were plentiful.
But the laughter resounded. And the musical praise sent the musician’s legacy soaring.
Yes, our hearts cried with the realization that she was gone. But lest we forget, this was a celebration. Ripe in the tradition of the black church, Houston was sent home to heaven.
“You (Cissy Houston) brought the world to church today,” said Pastor Marvin L. Winans, a longtime friend who said that Houston was like a sister and was asked by Houston’s mother to deliver the homily.
And that’s exactly what this was.
In all it’s glory. And for the entire world to see.
Much of the service was rooted in this rich tradition – through song, through scripture and through praise.
The invitation-only ceremony hit just the right note.
About an hour before the service began, the media got the word that Aretha Franklin, who was to deliver an emotional rendering of “Greatest Love Of All” would not be singing because she was ill. Franklin’s presence was missed.
But there was plenty of rafter-shaking performances that helped to send off the singer who was tragically found in her Beverly Hills hotel room just a week ago. Houston was 48.
Appropriately, Houston was returned to Newark, NJ and her services were held at the church where the superstar singer first got her start.
Houston fans were respectful, and for the most part understood her mother, Cissy Houston’s wishes to allow the family to say goodbye privately. Police barricades blocked fans and media from blocks away, but even still the turnout of Houston faithful was few and far between.
Most took to the internet or live TV to watch the services, to see superstars and Houston close friends like R. Kelly, BeBe Winans, Stevie Wonder, Donnie McClurkin and Alicia Keys take the stage and pay tribute to the legend.
A who’s who of the music industry turned out for the service. Valerie Simpson, L.A. Reid, Brandy, Queen Latifah, CeCe Winans, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey and ex-husband Bobby Brown also were in attendance. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vivica A. Fox, Ray J, Mary J. Blige and Forest Whitaker also were guests at the homegoing ceremony for Houston.
This was far from the media circus that we saw at Michael Jackson’s funeral just a few years ago in an arena in downtown Los Angeles. Yes, there were media outlets from around the world here to capture whatever glimpses they could of Houston’s send-off. But the paparazzi was kept at bay while the praise and worship service took place inside; one lone camera provided by the Associated Press documented the service.
The ceremony opened with the New Jersey Mass Choir singing Hezekiah Walker’s “Grateful,” an uplifting, soul-stirring rendition of the gospel tune.
The church’s minister of music spoke first, welcoming everyone to the church.
“We gone have church today. Because we believe in a mighty god. He’s awesome thorugh it all. It is well with my soul,” Minister A. Curtis Farrow said before welcoming Newark mayor Corey Booker.
Booker stood over Houston’s coffin, and said “we are here to mourn our loss, but to celebrate her life. God is in heaven. And with him is one of our angels, Whitney Houston. As the heavens reverabrat with joy and gladness. Joy cometh in the morning.”
The choir ran through familiar staples like “The Lord is My Shepard” and “Restoreth My Soul.”
The church’s pastor told the congregation that “this is how we celebrate. We have church.” Pastor Joe A. Carter said that Saturday was Houston’s day.
“Hearts broken, but with God’s strength, we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston,” he said.
Grammy winner and Houston pal, Donnie McClurkin sang his hit “Stand,” a song made for an occasion like this, given it ministers and pleads to stand up through the pain. The congregants leapt to their feet while he sang and belted out “hold on! Don’t give up!” in the course of his song.
Filmmaker Perry energized the crowd with his personal tales of Houston’s grace and spirituality.
“I know this grief,” he said before launching into a story of how the two of them first met and talked at a restaurant four years ago.
Perry said that he was shocked to discover her candor and how revealing she was.
“As I would see her talk about this, I would see this heaviness come upon her.,” he said, adding that he would look for words to encourage her. “She would say but the Lord. And the conversation went on. We would talk a little bit more. Just when I was about to step in … she would say ‘but my Lord and savior Jesus Christ’ … from that moment to now I’ve been standing with the family. I’m completely thankful to God for all that He has done.”
Perry said she had a grace that kept on carrying her.
“Whitney Houston loved the Lord. And in every conversation we had over the years it was evident that she loved the Lord,” he said.
Longtime family friend and collaborator BeBe Winans broke down and tearfully when he shared a story about his first major tour with sister CeCe Winans. His story made people laugh, and he found himself chuckling as well when he said of Houston “she decided in the height of her career that she was going to come and sing background to BeBe and CeCe,” he said. Winans said that after he protested, Houston said “you my brother and sister right? And I’m your sister, right? And we love each other right? She said and y’all broke, right? That is the Whitney (that I will miss).”
Rev. Kim Burrell shifted gears. She was to sing “I Believe in You and Me,” but asked right before she performed if she could do another song that she remixed for her longtime pal. She sang a personalized version of Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come.”
Costner, who co-starred with Houston in 1992’s The Bodygaurd, entertained the audience, talking about he and Houston’s shared background of their Baptist church beginnings. He talked up the “sweet miracle of Whitney,” and talked often to Houston’s mother down in the pew.
“There can be little doubt in this room that she has joined their ranks,” Costner said of Houston’s place in musical history, citing Franklin, Warrick and her mother. He went on to say that the debate will begin about the greatest singers of all time. “It will have little meaning to me if her name is not on it.”
Costner also talked about the burden that comes with fame, a seemingly poignant moment for the audience at the service.
“It was the burden that made her great. And the part that caused her to stumble in the end. Whitney if you could hear me now, I would tell you that you weren’t just good enough. You were great. You sang the whole damn song without a band. You made the picture what it was. A lot of leading men could have played my part. A lot of guys could have filled that role. But you, Whitney, I truly believed that you were the only one who could have played Rachel Marron at that time. You weren’t just pretty. You were as beautiful as a woman could be. People didn’t just like you Whitney,” he said. “They loved you.”
There were many tributes like this one from nearly everyone who took centerstage at the service.
Keys, who wiped away tears while sitting behind a piano, talked about their nicknames for one another.
“She crept into everybody’s heart. She was such a beautiful human being. Really, really, caring, beautiful, thoughtful human being. Would call you for no reason at all. Just to say ‘hi.’ That’s rare, I think,” Keys said. “In so many ways, she reached back to so many people. She reached back to me. She reached back to Monica. And Brandy and Jordin and all of these beautiful young artists. So many artists. And made us feel like strong. And capable. And loved. She’s an angel to us.”
Keys sang her tune “Send Me An Angel.” Following her performance, she embraced Houston’s mother and daughter, Bobbi Kristina.
Throughout the service, there wasn’t a beat missed.
Clive Davis, Houston’s mentor, said he was moved and that the spirit in the church was helping him with his grief and his heavy heart.
He talked about spending time with Houston just last week in Beverly Hills.
“We talked non-stop music, a subject that we both … loved. I couldn’t help but reminisce about all that we’d shared together over the years,” Davis said. “In the past, every hit we shared was pure joy. Neither of us could believe the incredible worldwide explosion when it happened. We just felt utter disbelief. I would ask her are you pinching yourself? She never took anything for granted. She was never arrogant. She was always grateful and appreciative.”
Davis said she captured the world forever.
It was an outpouring of devotion for Houston – her passion for music was celebrated, her love of God was pronounced.
Other performers, including Kelly and Wonder, brought the house down with their tributes to Houston.
In his final prayer, Pastor Winans gave the medicine that most needed to hear “we thank you for this life of Whitney Elizabeth Nippy Houston. We thank you that she was a dear friend. And we echo the sentiments of all that have come to show their love. Father, I pray. … Let us leave here recognizing that Whitney left too soon. Let us leave here impacted by her life. Saying that I want to fiinish what God has started. Let us make you first. I pray that you would lift up Mike and Gary and Pat and Bobbi Kristina. Lift up Cissy. Lift up Dionne. All of those that are touched. All of us that are hurting. Lift us up Father; we will not leave here bitter or upset. But let the church say amen. Let the church say amen. God has spoken. So let the church say amen,” he sang, trailing off.