Love and empathy for Whitney Houston in Newark

New Hope Baptist Church

As an icy wind sliced the air outside the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., Donna Thorn stuffed another bouquet of flowers between the iron bars of the church gate.

On the surface, Thorn, a short woman in sweatpants and a wool cap, didn't appear to have much in common with Whitney Houston, who as a child sang gospel in the red brick church. On Saturday, Houston was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel room. Thorn's eyes filled with tears and her voice shook as she described her own struggle with drugs and the empathy she had for the dead pop star, who went through the same thing.

The cause of Houston's death has not been determined and an autopsy is planned.

PHOTOS: Stars react

"If you was never an addict you don't know what it's like to struggle and stay clean ... to hit rock-bottom," said Thorn, recalling her own battle to get off drugs as she grew up on the gritty streets of Newark, where Houston was born 48 years ago.

It was "that fast-track life in L.A." that surely did not help Houston, said Thorn, who echoed other parishioners and fans Sunday as they lamented the premature loss of a Newark native who achieved stardom but whose roots remained deeply planted in the area.

"It's a big loss for us here," said Thorn, noting that the city has been "cleaned up" but still battles high crime and depressed neighborhoods. "She came from my hometown, she made it out of Newark, and she was on top of the world."

PHOTOS: Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those who attended the Sunday service at the church. "Our hearts are heavy today," he said before going in. "The suddenness of it all. ... We're just traumatized."

Fans expressed concerns that Houston would be remembered more for her troubles than her talents, but the flowers and cards left at the church throughout the morning made clear that on this corner at least, Houston's voice, not her vices, mattered.

"People are going to talk regardless, but what matters is letting the work you did and the life you led overshadow that," said Curtis Taylor after he and Rochelle Kearney left a single red rose at the church. "There will never be another Whitney," Kearney said. "Everyone who grew up here knew she was an inspiration."

FULL COVERAGE: Whitney Houston | 1963-2012

Asked what her favorite Houston song was, Kearney didn't skip a beat.

"I Will Always Love You," she said quickly. "And I will always love Whitney. She's at rest now."

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-- Tina Susman in Newark, N.J.

Photo: New Hope Baptist Church Pastor Joe A. Carter talks about the death of Whitney Houston and the effect it has had on the congregation of his church in Newark, N.J. on Sunday. Credit: Mel Evans / Associated Press

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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