According to media reports, Whitney Houston's funeral will be the antithesis of Michael Jackson's theatrical farewell. That is only fitting. While Jackson grew up on stage, a child prodigy accustomed to the spotlights, footlights and floodlights, Houston's parents postponed offers of a professional career until their precocious daughter reached adulthood. Other than an occasional outing as a guest performer in her mother's shows, the primary venue for Houston's talent was the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. Now, decades and numerous hits later, she has returned to her roots. While the public expected a huge memorial in a sports arena, the family opted to downsize the proceedings to an intimate memorial in a place and setting that recalls less complicated times -- a haven that their beloved gospel songs promise will serve as shield and sword against temptation and temporal storms. Cleansing and reviving souls are the business of the church. Likely, the family also wishes to cleanse the memories of Tinseltown excesses and the probing and prying of its tabloids. As CNN noted, "in every sense, she will be going home."
Houston, unlike Jackson, was a product of the church. While many singers, both black and white, first raised their voices in a church choir, not all of them are a product of that culture. Anthony Heilbut, an expert on gospel music and its culture, explored the cultural dynamics behind the music in his seminal book, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. In it, he surveys the singers, the preachers, the congregations and the lifestyle of that culture. And Houston -- along with her family and influences -- was born and bred of the gospel culture. It's not surprising that Houston's family, buffeted by temporal tragedy, chose to retreat behind the walls of the family church to seek solace of more a cosmic nature. As Carolyn Whigham, owner of the funeral home handling Houston's funeral arrangements, explained to the media, "They have shared her for 30-some years with the city, with the state, with the world. This is their time now for their farewell."
It's likely that Houston's mother, Cissy Houston, chose the location. Shunning a public platform to memorialize her daughter, selecting the relative privacy of her longtime sanctuary, New Hope Baptist Church, for the farewell stresses the loyalty the church commands over its members, even those who have gained immense fame outside its pews and pulpits.
New Hope Baptist Church, Newark, New Jersey. September 1990. Photo by author.
Over two decades ago, in September 1990, I happened to be in Newark. As a gospel music aficionado, I made the trek to New Hope Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. I had arranged with the church's secretary to speak to Mrs. Houston, who served as Minister of Music, after the service. Even though Mrs. Houston was called away at the last minute that Sunday, and I ended up speaking with her a week later by telephone, the brief excursion into New Hope Baptist Church informed me of the ties and traditions that exert such force over the children of the church. I have read media reports describing the church as modest and small. Actually, the red-tinged interior, the roomy pews and the layout of the administration offices impressed me. More impressive was the friendliness of the congregation. They welcomed a stranger into their sanctuary with the exuberance of long-lost family reunited.
The service concentrated on the challenges and triumphs of local youth; a portion of the proceedings involved a prayer for ill congregants. There was no hint that the church boasted several superstars among its congregants. Although Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, Houston and Mrs. Houston were four of the Drinkard family luminaries who had emerged from the church's choir, the only indication that the family held position at the church was Mrs. Houston's appearance on the service program handed out to worshippers that announced her as the Minister of Music. (Mrs. Houston, a legendary gospel and soul singer, is professionally known as Cissy, but her first name is Emily, which appeared on the program). There wasn't even a hint that one of its own was arguably the most popular female singer on the planet at the time. It appeared the church was more concerned about at-risk youth and sick parishioners than impressed by global celebrity.
I suspect that the family, weary of the tabloid reports and celebrity culture that many blame for Houston's problems, want to bunker down in their house of worship and foundation of faith. The service will not only be the antithesis of Jackson's super-sized memorial, its location will be the antithesis of the celebrity culture, even if the church is packed with them. A church that serves as host to inner-city Newark resides on a different plane than a Los Angeles arena that serves as host to the Oscars and Grammys. In 1990, had I not known the influence of the church on its members, I would have been astounded that Mrs. Houston, with her family's fame and fortune, remained loyal to and present in the church. The decision to hold a superstar send-off in a church largely unknown and located in an unglamorous neighborhood is not surprising to me at all. If memory serves me right, a plaque announced that the church, or at least part of it, was rebuilt in the mid-eighties. I couldn't help but wonder if Houston's success assisted in the redo. The church does inspire that kind of loyalty among its members. Perhaps the lyrics from one of Houston's gospel selections, I Go to the Rock, best describe not only the power that the church holds over its members and culture. The lyrics succinctly explain the family's decision, despite the expectations and wishes of fans and media, to return to their roots rather than the spotlight for Houston's final farewell.
Where do I go, where do I go
When the storms of life are threatening
Who do I turn to when those winds of sorrow blow
And is there a refuge in the time of tribulation
Go to the rock, I know he is able
I go to the rock
I go to the rock of my salvation
I go to the stone that the builders rejected
I run to the mountain
And the mountain he stands by me
When the Earth all around me is sinking sand
On Christ the solid rock I stand
When I need a shelter I go to the rock
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