The whole world went to church on Saturday (February 18) to say goodbye to one of the greatest singers of all time. Attendees of all ages, religious beliefs and walks of life, gathered to celebrate superstar singer Whitney Elizabeth Houston, a native of Newark, New Jersey. The state’s governor, Chris Christie, flew flags across New Jersey at half mast in her honor.
Despite the singer’s well-documented struggles with substance abuse, on Saturday, there was very little talk of controversy during the largely upbeat, often humorous and emotional Home-Going ceremony held at New Hope Baptist Church, where Houston first sang in the choir as a child. It was attended by more than 1,500 mourners, including Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Kevin Costner, Alicia Keys , Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Whitney’s longtime friends, the Winans family.
The ceremony largely underscored her deep Baptist roots and love of the gospel, whether through word or song. This was evidenced by a performance by Grammy-winning gospel star Donnie McClurkin, who sang one of Houston’s favorites, “Stand,” at the request of her family.
Filmmaker Tyler Perry, who spoke early in the service, said that in conversations with Houston he learned that it was her faith in God that carried her through the darkest times of her life. “Say whatever you want,” Perry said. “God is for her. She is resting with the angels.”
Gospel singer BeBe Winans, who caused ripples of laughter as he talked about the “crazy Whitney” he knew, wept as he sang the touching ballad “I Really Miss You,” a song he wrote about his deceased brother who also died at the age of 48.
Bishop T.D. Jakes and gospel star Kim Burrell also remembered the fallen diva, with Burrell personalizing the Sam Cooke classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The legendary Stevie Wonder did something similar later, changing the lyrics of one of his most famous songs from “There’s a ribbon in the sky for our love” to “There’s an angel in the choir of love.”
Actor Kevin Costner, who fought to have Houston cast opposite him in the groundbreaking 1992 film “The Bodyguard,” spoke of Houston’s enduring doubts about herself and her talent, even at the height of her musical career. He urged her to “go sing for your heavenly father, Whitney,” as he fought back tears.
There were a few anxious moments during the ceremony, however, involving Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown . He apparently attempted to bring nine people to sit in the front row at the ceremony and was turned away. A source at the funeral told MTV News that Brown was encouraged not to cause a scene at the funeral by walking out, but the singer reportedly got on his tour bus and took off, saying he loved Whitney but felt disrespected by the church. He reiterated the sentiment in a statement released by his rep.
Houston’s mentor, Clive Davis, brought the audience back to the reason they’d all gathered in that church.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime,” he said. “A face like that. A smile like that. A presence like that for a lifetime. And when one person embodies it all — well, it takes my breath away.”
He called Houston an eternally loyal friend. “Yes, she admitted to the craziness in her life, and confessed to Oprah about her battles but when I needed her, she was there,” he said.
To her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, Davis said, “Always be proud of your mother,” before concluding that Whitney was going to “raise the roof in heaven like no one else has done before.”
Her longtime bodyguard, Ray, who found her body in a Beverly Hills hotel room, wanted people to remember Houston the woman and not just the singer, adding that entertainers in general should be treated with more respect. He was referring to Houston’s tarnished image in the media after years of battling addiction. “We have to give back to all our entertainers. Treat them with love and stop ridiculing them,” he said. “They give their lives to you. They’re not with their families. This lady right here, she loved you. I know that. I was with her every day.”
Controversial R&B singer R. Kelly sang a song he wrote for Houston, “I Look to You,” moments before one of the ceremony’s final performances, “Tomorrow,” by the Winans family. It was followed by the eulogy given by Marvin Winans.
The church played Houston’s chart-shattering hit “I Will Always Love You,” the song that was without a doubt her most famous, as pall bearers carried her gleaming silver casket out of the church.
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