Whitney Houston’s Funeral: The Most Integrated Church Service
Whitney Houston’s first album came out in 1985, the time as I was getting into my own music, going to parties and to nightclubs. Perhaps, not surprisingly then, I have found myself drawn to the coverage of the superstar’s death.
When I first learned that her family opted to have a private, invitation-only funeral service, I surprised myself by feeling left out. What about the fans, I thought? What about the idea of having a huge event at an arena in New Jersey, her home state?
So when I discovered that her funeral service would be televised, I scheduled my Saturday chores around the noon broadcast. With this decision, as Pastor Marvin Winans said they “brought the world to church.” To be exact, the world saw inside New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey—the same place where Houston began singing as a girl. In the process, the world got a bird’s eye view of church and funerals, African American (Baptist) style.
I was amused by CNN’s Piers Morgan’s struggle to describe the service he had witnessed:
I've never watched a Baptist service like this before. And so I'm sure that it's quite common, this kind of thing in many Baptist ceremonies. But really extraordinary…
I loved Pastor Marvin Winans' address. You call it a eulogy, a sermon, or what you call it. But whatever it was, it was just pulsating and it was vibrant and positive. And you just -- you felt enthralled by this.
For many on-lookers, Morgan’s unfamiliarly this kind of service would seem to be a result of his race: He is white and therefore unfamiliar with black churches. But had I not sought some experiences that put me in contact with these types of church services, although black, I would have been as befuddled as Morgan.
What is sometimes described as “the black church” in the U.S., more correctly refers to some African American churches. Although my church-going record is spotty, important aspects of Houston’s funeral would not appear in any of the churches I attended growing up in the Caribbean—regardless of the occasion. And they would not appear in any of the churches I have frequented in the U.S.
At the service for Houston, the speeches, culminating in a textbook Baptist sermon (eulogy) from Pastor Winans were replete with call-and-response, and other rhetorical flourishes common to this “emotional worship” style. For example, sister-in-law and manager, Patricia Houston used the technique of repeating one word—“anyway”—in her tribute, saying in part:
When she did not want to do things, she did them anyway…
When people were often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered, Whitney forgave them anyway. When she was kind, people often accused her of being selfish or having ulterior motives. Whitney was kind anyway. When she was successful, she did win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies, yet Whitney succeeded anyway. When she was honest and sincere, people often deceived her, and yet Whitney tried her best to be honest and sincere anyway. What she spent years creating, what others could destroy overnight, Whitney created anyway. When she did manage to find serenity and happiness, some were jealous and envious, yet Whitney tried to be happy anyway. The good she did, she knew could be forgotten, but she did good anyway. Even when she gave the best she had, it sometimes was not enough and she knew it. But she gave us her best anyway. She knew deep down that in the final analysis, it was always between her and God and it was never between her and the world anyway.
Ricky Minor, the late singer’s musical director repeated the phrase, “I love Whitney Houston” in his tribute:
It didn't take me long to realize that I love Whitney Houston. Not because she's pretty. I mean, she's pretty -- 5'10", cocoa brown skin.
That face, that smile, those eyes. But that's not why I love Whitney Houston. I mean, not because she can sing. The girl sang, all right? I mean, what a voice. Not a voice, the voice. Hear me now.
I love Whitney Houston. Could it be the dancing? Maybe not. Maybe not that. But I love Whitney Houston...
(Think of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches—he was a Baptist minister—and you recognize the similarity in style of many of the day’s speakers.) As is typical in this style of worship, the service for Houston started off somewhat quietly, but the emotion in the speakers and the music gradually grew. Winans himself acknowledged this rhythm saying, “See, I'm getting loud. I'm starting to get louder.” He also referred to the location of the “Amen corner”, from which he expected verbal acknowledgment to “expedite the process” and he encouraged onlookers to repeat the key word, “prioritize” more than once. Even Winans’ use of an everyday object—“the owner’s manual”—as a metaphor for the Bible/God’s influence in your life meets a standard observed in the African American Baptist sermon.
Many African American church services might be characterized as praise and worship services. And indeed there was much praising at Houston’s funeral; many of these behaviors would be frowned on at the churches I have regularly attended. (Can you guess the denomination of the churches I attend based on this?) Recall too that the ministers on the pulpit stood at various times as others sang and spoke.
Although I grew up with lots of Black people, I grew up with none of this. How is this possible? I grew up in the Caribbean where there are large populations of black people. But we talk about “the black church” or “the black experience” as though they are monolithic.
But a brief—even cursory—examination of our history explains these kinds of differences. As colonies of the British, many aspects of Caribbean culture remain colored by Victorian influences. The churches of my youth were all pretty quiet, akin to “white churches” in America. And the churches I am most familiar with in the U.S. have been predominantly white, and quite unlike Houston’s childhood house of worship. Despite integration in many facets of life, Americans remain fairly segregated with regard to houses of worship. Most Americans worship with people who are similar to them in many ways—income, education, and race, during what is called “the most segregated hour in the United States”; Houston’s televised funeral service integrated at least one Baptist church.