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“Farewell, Whitney!" Gone, but not forgotten
In a solemn and sometimes revival-like atmosphere family and friends gathered inside New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, last Saturday to pay their final respects to the legendary pop diva, mother and daughter, Ms. Whitney Houston, who was 48 years old when she died Feb. 11 in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills, California.
The multi award-winning singer died a day before the music industry's biggest event, the 2012 Grammy Awards Ceremony making it fitting that many of those same Grammy nominees and winners were in attendance at her funeral or home going celebration, as it was referred to by her family.
The celebration was streamed live online / broadcast live with no commercial breaks by several cable and news networks with, no doubt, entire families gathered around a television or computer crying, laughing, singing and remembering just as they did inside New Hope Baptist Church.
This is the church where Houston started her career singing in the youth choir. On this day the sanctuary was filled with family, friends and some of the biggest and brightest stars in music, film, politics and religion all gathered to pay tribute to the legend that was, is and remains forever Whitney Elizabeth Houston.
Among those in attendance were Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Costner, music mogul and Houston's mentor, Clive Davis, Reverends Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, T.D. Jakes and wife Syretta, Mariah Carey, Ray J., Brandy, Tyler Perry, Whitney's long-time friend, singer and prayer partner Kim Burrell, the Winans Family and so many more, too numerous to mention.
The church's choir combined with the New Jersey Mass Choir to set the mood for Saturday's homegoing celebration by singing uplifting, toe-tapping and hand-clapping gospel songs of worship and praise. The kind of songs Whitney Houston grew up singing.
Rev. Joe A. Carter, Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, a 108-year-old institution in Newark, gave the opening prayer saying "We're here today, hearts broken, yet with God's strength, we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston."
And a celebration it was, albeit many tears were shed despite the toe-tapping choir singing and illustrious words of comfort and condolences - some humorous, some poignant - from the various speakers and singers. Whitney's silver and gold colored flower-draped casket, placed front and center, was a constant reminder of what the gathering was really all about.
The pop legend's cousin and world-renowned singer Dionne Warwick moderated the service and gave her own tribute by reading the poem," Don't Grieve For Me Now I'm Free."
Recording artist and Pastor Rev. Donnie McClurkin was first on the program. He prefaced his singing with fond remembrances of his friend including the one time he was pulled into Whitney's dressing room to pray with her because she was so nervous prior to an awards ceremony appearance. When McClurkin finally sang, he brought the church to its feet with a powerful rendering of his smash gospel hit "Stand". Looking directly towards Houston's mom and daughter, he sang, "When you prayed and cried, cried and prayed, when you've done all you can, just stand."
Film director, producer and actor Tyler Perry, who donated his private plane to carry Whitney's body from California back home to New Jersey, sounded like a preacher himself as he gave a rousing tribute to his friend.
"What I know about her is that she loved the Lord...Grace is what carried her. Grace is what kept on carrying her all the way through. She was not even supposed to speak because of a childhood incident. However she went on to sing to the top of the charts; singing before presidents. That same grace carried her home." Quoting Romans 8:38-39, Perry said nothing, not even death, can separate Whitney Houston from the love of God.
At this point, instead of a funeral it looked more like a down-home Southern-style tent revival with people standing, hands waving in the air and shouts of "hallelujah" and "amen" sounding forth.
Next up came BeBe Winans, whose musical family shared a close relationship with the Houstons and whose older brother Pastor Marvin Winans gave the eulogy. BeBe, through tears and laughter, told a funny story of how his friend "Nippy" (Whitney Houston's nickname given by her father, the late John Houston, when she was just a child), in effort to help him and his singing partner/sister CeCe Winans, once volunteered to act as background singer for them while she was yet at her peak in popularity. BeBe echoed many other speakers who spoke of Whitney's kind and considerate personality.
Rev. T. D. Jakes who co-executive produced and appears with Houston in the upcoming remake of 70s movie classic Sparkle, as always was eloquent and timely in his remarks.
"The Family paid a tremendous price and shared her (Whitney) with the world and we just want to take a moment to say 'thank you'." Pastor Jakes said he hadn't known the singer for very long only meeting her last summer on the movie set. He complimented her professionalism and talent as an actress. He also admonished the family with biblical examples of when it appeared death was the victor. "The Bible says love is greater, stronger than death... Don't dare think that death has won, people you love may leave you outwardly but inwardly, they never leave you... God is love."
After Rev. Jakes, came Whitney's good friend and prayer partner, recording artist Pastor Kim Burrell, who personalized A Change is Gonna Come, made famous by Sam Cooke. With tears streaming, Burrell looked upward and sang "Whitney know somebody's waiting up there beyond the sky."
Actor Kevin Costner told of how he fought for Houston with no prior acting experience to be in his movie, The Bodyguard. He spoke affectionately of their meeting and how he knew she was the only one to play Rachel Marron, the superstar diva, his character was paid to protect from a crazed stalker. "We had a lot in common" Costner said. "We both grew up in a Baptist church; my grandmother played piano and loved the choir." Costner regaled the mourners with details about the song choice of the mega-hit "I Will Always Love You" and how that song was not the first choice for the movie. "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" had initially been chosen for the film. Costner also relayed Whitney's fears about being pretty enough or good enough to play the part and how he had to continue to reassure her that she was the part.
Clive Davis, Houston's mentor and record label executive, who first signed her to a recording contract, said he was "moved, touched and inspired by feeling the spirit in this great church." He said it was helping him with his grief and heavy heart. It was Clive Davis who stood by Houston through thick and thin, her ups and downs. He talked about sitting in a bunglow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he and Whitney in their pajamas, Whitney eating her favorite hamburgers and fries, signing along to what would become two of her biggest hits, "My Love is your Love" and "How Will I Know".
He said one of their last conversations was Whitney promising him that she was getting in shape, swimming, not smoking saying "I'll be ready by August" for the premiere of her comeback film. Davis ended his tribute with words of encouragement to Whitney's daughter, Bobbi Kristina saying "Always be proud of your mother. She loved you so much."
One of the most riveting moments in the service came from Ray Watson, Whitney's brother-in-law and long-time bodyguard was at the Beverly Hilton Hotel when she died. Watson reminded fans and others to treat celebrities and entertainers with love and respect. "Stop ridiculing them," he said. "It means so much to give a little love." Pointing towards Houston's casket he said "She loved you."
Stevie Wonder gave "Praise to God for allowing me to be in life at the same time as Whitney just before he sang, "Ribbon in the Sky" and "Love's In Need of Love".
Pat Houston, Whitney's sister-in-law and manager urged the listeners to remember Whitney with the love she gave everyone. She also said, "Filming Sparkle was some of the happiest times of her (Whitney's) life. She was a gift of life to many on that set."
Pastor Marvin Winans in his eulogy talked about how he first met Whitney when they were new to the business, how they had the same agent at the William Morris Agency and how their families remained close down through the years. The pastor also acknowledged Cissy Houston's decision to hold a private service for her daughter in the church in which she was raised instead of planning a public event at a huge stadium as many were expecting. He told her "It took a lot of courage to make that decision and because of that decision you brought the world to church."
And yes, people the world came together for one last time to celebrate the homegoing of one of pop music's greatest singer, the Voice herself, Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Gone, but never forgotten.