NEWARK, N.J.—It took four remarkable hours of tears, laughter and soaring song in the Baptist church where she grew up. But by the time Whitney Houston’s casket was carried from the altar, she belonged to her family again.
Dignity — a quality absent in the weeklong media circus that accompanied the superstar’s tragic demise — finally cut through, as Houston’s grieving kin reclaimed the person behind the persona, flaws and all.
Saturday’s farewell at New Hope Baptist Church struck a seemingly impossible balance between public and private, celebration and sorrow. A tight police cordon kept the reporters a full block away from the three-storey house of worship, while Houston’s adoring public remained behind security lines a further three blocks from the eye of the media storm.
A lone camera inside the church streamed the ceremony live to the Internet and, by extension, to the ravenous airwaves of CNN and friends.
One day earlier, in dishing the details of Saturday’s remembrance, the Hollywood gossip site TMZ.com went with the braying headline, “Whitney Houston Funeral Programs! Getcha Programs Here!” A new low, or high, on the voyeuristic death beat, depending on your appetite for tawdry.
But in holding firm to friends and relatives only at the church so indelibly linked to Houston’s extended musical family, the homecoming service — or rather, “home going,” in Baptist parlance — was a gospel-infused splash of humanity.
“I’d like to thank Mama Houston for forgetting about everything else and doing it here. It took a lot of courage. Because of that, you brought the world to church today,” Pastor Marvin Winans said in his closing eulogy, addressing Houston’s mother, Cissy.
Aretha Franklin, godmother to Whitney, took ill and was unable to attend. Ex-husband Bobby Brown walked out after reportedly being asked to move seats several times.
But the balance of the day saw a who’s who of gospel, soul and R&B talent choking back tears as they shared stories and song, backed by the conjoined mass choirs of New Hope and New Jersey.
Alicia Keys described Houston’s role in nurturing young talent around her: “She’d call you for no reason at all, just to say hi. That’s rare. She made us feel strong and capable and loved.”
Rev. Kim Burrell came forward with a gospel twist, retooling Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Whitney-specific lyrics. And so, too, did Stevie Wonder, reworking “Ribbon in the Sky” to better suit the moment. “Actually, in my little fantasy world, I had a little crush on Whitney,” he said.
Actor/director Tyler Perry said he was struck by “how candid and open and honest” Whitney was about her struggles when they first met. And often in their conversations, she would “go back into this sadness” — only to snap out of it through her faith in God.
“If God be for you, who can be against you? So say whatever you want. God is with her and she is resting with the angels,” said Perry.
Among the least likely suspects in the church was actor Kevin Costner, who acknowledged the odd coupling up front. Pausing periodically to maintain composure, Costner explained how he and Houston forged a “private bond” built upon their shared experiences growing up in fervently Baptist households.
Costner went on to describe the fierce resistance he encountered in Hollywood over the casting of Houston in The Bodyguard. “I told everyone I had taken notice Whitney was black,” said Costner.
Though she eventually landed the lead role, Costner described how the fear of a requisite screen test left Houston riddled with doubts.
“Arguably the biggest pop star in the world wasn’t sure if she was good enough,” said Costner. Those anxieties, he suggested, were a burden that made her great and may also have “caused her to stumble in the end.
“The unexplainable burden that comes with fame — call it doubt, call it fear. I’ve had mine. I know the famous in the room have had theirs,” he said.
Clive Davis, Houston’s music “industry father,” described a final encounter with Whitney little over a week ago in which she vowed she was getting in shape, including a daily swimming regimen and no cigarettes. She promised to have her “high notes back” by August.
“Well, Whitney, I’m going to hold you to it,” said Davis. “Everyone in heaven, including God, is waiting, and I just know you’re going to raise the roof like no one has done before.”
The farewell to Houston, who is to be buried Sunday in a ceremony at which no cameras are expected, echoed in the streets around the church, where small groups of fans on the outer barricades sang and held signs of tribute. Few seemed bothered by their distance from the actual ceremony.
“This is the North Ward. Our part of Newark has been through some hard times, just like Whitney,” said Sekou Salaam, 45, who grew up two streets north of New Hope Baptist Church.
“But she’s still our homegirl. And this is the right way to say goodbye. People all over the world are watching. But it feels right, letting the family have this moment while the rest of us stand here quietly. Respect.”