When Whitney Houston is eulogized and laid to rest on Saturday in New Jersey, it will complete the circle of her personal and professional lives in more ways than one. Houston, who died at age 48 last Saturday in a Beverly Hills hotel room of as-yet-undetermined causes, grew up in New Jersey and cut her teeth singing at Newark, New Jersey's New Hope Baptist church.
It is there that her family and friends will gather to remember a favorite daughter who burst onto the global music scene in the mid-1980s, never forgetting where she came from. Houston was the third and youngest child born, on August 9, 1963, to gospel great Cissy Houston and her late husband John, an entertainment executive and former Army serviceman. The couple raised their brood in what has been described as a strict but loving household in middle-class East Orange, New Jersey, where the family moved in 1967 following six days of riots in Newark tied to a police incident involving a black cabdriver. To her neighbors and childhood friends, Houston was known affectionately by her nickname "Nippy" and for the angelic, powerful voice she shared with them during Sunday worship services.
Her Grammy-winning mother led the musical program at New Hope and the "I Will Always Love You" singer's cousin Dionne Warwick also sang in the choir of the 112-year-old church. Whitney got her start as a soloist in the church's junior choir at age 11. Houston was just one of the stars to rise from the city of 275,000, located 10 miles from New York City, which also spawned comedian Jerry Lewis and rock icon Paul Simon.
According to local media reports, Houston kept those roots strong even after she ascended to stardom, dropping in every so often to sing at Easter Sunday services at New Hope and spending time with neighbors at barbecue and holiday gatherings.
The town returned the favor, renaming a local elementary school near her childhood home Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts in 1997. Houston would often drop in and spend time with the pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students, who gathered for a memorial event on Monday where they heard speeches, released white balloons and listened to Houston's legendary rendition of the National Anthem from Super Bowl XXV.
Her funeral will be a private affair that will be streamed live online and offered to TV networks. New Hope Pastor Joe A. Carter will preside over the small, intimate ceremony, which he said will be a "celebration for one who has left us with so much," and the eulogy will be given by gospel singer Marvin Winans.
People magazine reported on Thursday that Houston's "The Bodyguard" co-star Kevin Costner will speak at the funeral, which will also feature songs from Houston's godmother, R&B icon Aretha Franklin, and Motown legend Stevie Wonder, in addition to words from her longtime record boss Clive Davis.
New Jersey's outspoken governor Chris Christie, meanwhile, was forced to defend his decision to have flags in the state flown at half-staff on Saturday following complaints. "What I would say to everybody is there but for the grace of God go I," he said, according to The Associated Press. Christie brushed aside complaints that Houston, who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction during her life, is not deserving of such reverence.
"Whitney Houston was an important part of the cultural fabric of this state," Christie said. "She was a cultural icon in this state, and her accomplishments in her life were a source of great pride for the people of this state ... I am disturbed by people who believe that because her ultimate demise — and we don't know what is the cause of her death yet — but because of her history of substance abuse that somehow she's forfeited the good things that she did in her life. I just reject that on a human level."
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