Whitney Houston's funeral: An uplifting 'home going' from New Hope
It bears noting up top the odd juxtaposition of watching Whitney Houston’s funeral on television stations called E! Entertainment and Black Entertainment Television, as though the loss of a singular voice is indeed an entertainment, something to watch with morning coffee. Houston, however, was an entertainer, and her images have permeated television both in good times and in bad since her rise in the mid 1980s, so there’s a certain symmetry at work.
But that’s the cynical view of the broadcast of Houston’s “home going,” a private church service streamed on the Internet from the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., the same church where her family belonged and where a young Whitney learned to sing.
And any cynicism was obliterated with the very first images of the inside of New Hope, where a choir 100 strong of men clad in black, women in white, hands clapping, lifted their arms to the sky, sang hymns to their Lord and provided a farewell filled with the same emotional spirit that their departed friend offered to the world.
In those faces weren’t mere fans, but a congregation who sang the words in glorious harmony, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.” The voices commanded that you believe them, and in the process, at least for outsiders, illustrated in pure harmony the world that gave birth to Whitney Houston’s voice, even as it affirmed that the same spirit will continue to ring for generations to come in Newark.
The older of these faces know Whitney’s mom Cissy Houston, had watched the daughter grow up in the church. You could see on their faces the knowledge that some of them blossomed right alongside Whitney, where she became an inspiration when her voice transcended church walls and became the world’s. The younger of them saw in her the possible, as well as the truth that the roots of the church, like the voices that inhabit it, are part of a continuum that began long before Whitney was born and will continue long after her untimely death.
Or, in the words of one speaker, “We spend our years as a tale that is told.”
Over the next four hours, friends, colleagues, and relatives including Houston's cousin Dionne Warwick, her pastor, her dear friends BeBe and CeCe Winans, her costar in “The Bodyguard,” Kevin Costner, and the man, Clive Davis, who signed her to his record label and helped guide her throughout her career, praised the woman.
Singer Alicia Keys called Whitney her angel as she told stories of her not only serving as an inspiration growing up, but a constant cheerleader for many young singers looking for support. The Rev. Kim Burrell sang a moving interpretation on "A Change is Gonna Come," and R. Kelly, wearing sunglasses and in his most solemn voice, sang a rendition of "Look to You." Stevie Wonder reworked his song, "Ribbon in the Sky" for her.
Keys said it most simply during her expression of grief: “It’s so obvious how she’s crept into everyone’s heart."
But, honestly, none conveyed the life of Whitney Houston like that choir standing behind the chrome casket, the collective voice that rose from so many individuals simultaneously to become unity personified. It's one that brought together not only the spirit of everyone watching at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, but touched the ears of everyone streaming worldwide online, those watching it on an entertainment outlets and replaying it on YouTube. That singular song rising from the choir contained generational multitudes, and was more life affirming than the greatest sermon; passed down from mother and father to son and daughter, it connects the young and old, the black and the white, the rich and the poor -- and, as proven on Saturday morning, the living and the dead.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: People watch from a distance as the hearse with Whitney Houston's casket drives away Saturday after her funeral at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J. Credit: Mel Evans / Associated Press