Whitney Houston’s family achieved the near-impossible for themselves and for her. They managed to hold a private “home-going service” for the superstar, and did so, in part, by graciously broadcasting that service to the world.
I was in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday, embedded with an international pool of journalists on a corner a few hundred yards from New Hope Baptist Church, where the service was held and where Houston’s family has roots extending back a half century, according to the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., pastor of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church.
The setting was an unlikely one, dotted as the neighborhood is with abandoned and half-built buildings. An exceptional, appropriate silence prevailed throughout a wide perimeter around the church. Local gangs reportedly even called a truce in Houston’s honor.
When I spoke to Rev. Howard in preparation for my reporting, he expressed concern that fans would forget that, although Houston was a public figure, her untimely death is fundamentally a family tragedy.
“If people have any kind of dignity and compassion, if they truly love Whitney Houston in the best sense of the word, they won’t go clamoring at the church, knowing they have no invitation,” Howard had said.
Perhaps fans did, in fact, love her enough to stay away, because there were no crowds—only a couple hundred journalists, a significant police presence, and handfuls of fans keeping vigil several blocks away as limousines and luxury cars came and went.
The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, has known the Houston family for decades. He shared his memories of the woman he called “Nippy” at CNN.com and provided commentary for the network with Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the service got underway.
When I spoke to Rev. Soaries Friday evening, he said his ministry to grieving families is informed by his own painful experience of having lost his father suddenly when he was only 24 years old. Because of his father’s stature as a minister in their community, other clergymen came to visit him and his family in the days after his father’s death. None sought to comfort or pray with him, he said. Instead they tried to influence who would preach the funeral. When the time came, minister after minister got up to speak until Soaries passed a note to the emcee saying the family would leave if these men didn’t stop their “foolishness.”
“It was clear to me that their presentations had nothing to do with my dad, nothing to do with the family, and everything to do with them seeing the church full of people, and this big crowd. They were motivated to perform rather than serve,” said Soaries.
Perhaps because they’ve dealt with sycophants for so long, the Houston family seemed to give the microphone only to those who would focus on their “Nippy” and her faith in God.
“You paid a tremendous price in life,” Bishop T.D. Jakes told Houston’s family as he began his remarks. “You shared her with the world and we want to take a moment and say thank you.” Yes, thank you so much.
Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner said he fought for Houston to play the leading role in her first film, The Bodyguard, and talked about the insecurities that both made Houston great and contributed to her decline. He said insecurities like hers are not unique among the famous.
Media mogul Tyler Perry said there were two constants in his friend’s life: “a grace that carried” and her love for the Lord. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, he said neither the height of her fame nor the depth of her struggle could separate her from God’s love.
“What then say you to these things?” said Perry. “If God be for you who can be against you? God was for her and she is resting, singing with the angels.”
Soaries said it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of a deceased’s person’s life because “there is some redemptive value in every life” and because doing so “helps counter negative feelings and the negative imagery of the dead body.”
This week a reporter told Soaries that sources who knew Houston kept saying, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“That’s poetry and, for some, it takes years for the morning to come,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bible, either in verse or theology that suggests we get over death. Death is too unnatural. What the Bible promises is that God will help us get through it.”
In regard to Houston’s long struggle with drug addiction, Soaries told Piers Morgan that she “was surrounded by an environment of temptation” growing up and “had access to all kinds of things.”
“I would not condemn [ex-husband] Bobby Brown for Whitney’s struggles,” he said.
“I’m surprised to hear all these secular people talk about demons,” Soaries told me. “Once you claim Whitney or anyone was struggling against demons, then you have to understand that it’s not her struggle. All of us, therefore, are struggling against the demons that attack our vulnerabilities. When we are incapable of dealing with demons, that’s when God and God’s emissaries take control, which means that death for a Christian is deliverance from the attack; it’s not surrender to the attack.”
Houston’s struggle wasn’t unlike the struggles of a person who can’t afford to buy food, but buys lottery tickets every week, he said. “It’s the same problem … It’s not that drugs used by a superstar are any worse than gambling for someone on food stamps. Something attacks our vulnerability and causes us to behave in self-destructive ways.”
Rev. Howard went further in his assessment of Houston’s decline. He believes that she, like so many exceptionally talented artists before her, succumbed to an “occupational hazard.”
“Talented people are somehow caught in a cycle of demand for their services without regard for their humanity,” said Howard. “I think it’s a dance between the artist’s temperament and their vanity or ego and their desire to remain on top in a very competitive business. I think there are people who are around them, who suck their blood, so to speak.”
I felt like one of those people yesterday, showing up as I did to photograph and report on her funeral. Around me journalists jockeyed for shots of her casket being loaded into a hearse and for the inside scoop on why Bobby Brown abruptly left soon after the funeral began. Like them I took the coffin shot and reported what sources inside were saying about Brown because that’s what the world wanted to see and know.
“What is the social madness? What is the social need that makes us virtually deadened to the family hurt and pain of this loss?” Howard asked. He would have liked to see Houston singing into her old age like Etta James (who died last month at 74 years old) did.
“[James] had her own struggles, but she managed somehow to pull out of this,” he said.
Perhaps the great lesson to be learned from Houston’s unlikely funeral is the one her family — rooted as it is in community, church, and gospel — taught us. Artists like her generously share their gifts with us. They don’t belong to us. They belong to the people who love and nurture them through the heights and the depths of their lives, and who send them home with grace when their battles are done.