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Saturday, February 18, 2012
Good Bye Whitney Houston Rest in Peace
NEWARK -- Today's New Hope Baptist Church funeral for pop star Whitney Houston opened with tones more celebratory than somber.
"We are here not to mourn our loss, but to celebrate her life," Newark Mayor Cory Booker told a celebrity-studded crowd of family, friends and Hollywood A-listers.
Booker was preceded and followed by a New Hope's rousing gospel choir, which performed several religious songs ahead of a series of several of speeches and performances planned for the service, which was expected to last at least two hours.
"We're here today, hearts broken, yet with God's strength, we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston," said New Hope Church pastor Joe Carter. "Whitney, you are the only one who could bring all of us together. Whitney, today is your day. We celebrate."
"The memories are so powerful, the music will be with us forever. We have a lot to rejoice about," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Houston family friend who arrived shortly before a hearse carrying Houston's flower-covered coffin arrived from the Whigham Funeral Home at 9:30 a.m.
"Today we praise, we preach and we appreciate," Jackson said before heading into the church. "Whitney had that special something."
Early on, the service is underscoring similar themes and sentiment; a "home going" service that is a black church tradition, celebrating the human spirit's triumph with the help of God, said Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of African-American religions at Harvard Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister.
"The thought of a tortured soul being able to find eternal rest is all the more reason to celebrate," said Walton. "No matter how death came, persons are still able to be resurrected and be home and be with God."
Houston, 48, died Feb. 11 in a Beverly Hills hotel. The cause of death is still under investigation, but over the past several years, her history of substance abuse and erratic behavior overshadowed a stellar entertainment career as a recording artist, actress and producer.
Today's service will feature performances by Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keys and R. Kelly. Houston's "auntie," Aretha Franklin, was scheduled to perform Houston's hit The Greatest Love of All, but the Queen of Soul was too ill to attend because of leg spasms.
Music mogul Clive Davis, who molded and shaped Houston's career after seeing her perform with her mother in a New York nightclub, is expected to make some remarks, as is Kevin Costner, her co-star in 1992's box-office hit The Bodyguard. Patricia Houston, her sister-in-law, and cousin Dionne Warwick are also scheduled to speak at New Hope, where Houston, known as "Nippy," began singing with the junior gospel choir at age 11.
Outside the New Hope church, DeForest Soaries, a pastor and longtime family friend, said that while he felt incredible sadness, he was also rejoicing in Houston's life. Soaries noted that Houston never forgot her Jersey roots, returning regularly to the Peppermint Lounge to keep an eye out for new talent. "She was a global personality with a local touch," Soaries said.
The invitation-only service was expected to be attended by about 1,500. Houston's family closely guarded much of funeral and church arrangements and sought the privacy Houston had been unable to escape under the harsh media glare and tabloid headlines of the past few years.
Blessed with a powerful voice and model looks, Houston recorded a record seven consecutive No. 1 hits, including How Will I Know, Saving All My Love for You and So Emotional. Houston's film career included roles in Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher's Wife.
Houston's last album, "I Look to You," made its debut on the top of the charts in 2009, but didn't have the staying power of her previous records. A 2010 tour was doomed by cancellations because of illness and subpar performances.
Still, a comeback was ahead: She was to star in the remake of the movie Sparkle and was working on new music. Friends and fans were hopeful.
Hundreds of fans camped outside a cordoned-off area several blocks away before dawn, some singing Houston hits or dancing.
Saadiqua Conner, of Wilmington, DE., left home at 5 a.m. for Newark. "Whitney was love," says Conner, 41. "She let a young girl dream that a city girl could attain her dream, and now my dream is gone."
"Islam says you shouldn't cry when someone passes because they'll lose their way finding their way to paradise," she said, holding back her tears. "But I hurt."
Ziyadah Perry, her 5-year-old daughter Deziyah, 9-year-old nephew Nkosi Perry and sister, Zurinah, arrived near the church at 5:30 a.m., "to see history," Ziyadah Perry said.
"I struggle every day to stay clean and sober," Perry said. "And I have my own daughter now and to watch her battle with that, it made me stronger, because you know, (Houston) has a daughter that she left here. ... I don't want to leave my daughter like that."
The service also brought out entrepreneurs selling T-shirts, posters, single stem roses and disposable cameras to fans gathered a few blocks away. The crowd was animated, trying to gauge who was arriving in cars with darkened windows. They'd gotten a glimpse from Jennifer Hudson and Star Jones.
Newark Police are providing escorts to the celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Elton John, Bill Cosby and Beyoncé. Houston's ex-husband, Bobby Brown, who had been estranged from her family, was also attending with the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina. Also attending: singers Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Jordin Sparks Brandy and her brother Ray J, the singer who was with Houston in her final days.
Houston's family held a private viewing at the Whigham Funeral Home late Friday afternoon. Outside, fans and on-lookers snapped photos of a makeshift memorial that included flowers, candles, handwritten signs and balloons with phrases such as "I miss you" and "I love you."
Inside the entry doors was a large poster of a smiling Houston, and to the left, a long black evening dress and a pair of gold-and-black high-heel shoes. As Houston's music played, well-wishers lined up to write notes in a book left on a stand outside labeled "friends and relatives."
Jerry Clark, who stopped by Friday morning, says he planned to stake out a spot outside the church early in the morning. "I know it's going to be packed," said Clark, 49, who knew Houston from her early years growing up in the city.
Scores of brightly colored balloons, bouquets of flowers and handwritten signs of sympathy were outside the church.
Betty Grier came by the funeral home to pay her respects before picking up her 10-year-old granddaughter, Nia Phoenix, who attends the Whitney Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts in nearby East Orange. Students there contributed candles and flowers to an informal memorial that sprang up in front of the school. Grier said she cried when she heard a Houston song this week.
Ramona Kelly was also outside the funeral home Friday. "She inspires me," said Kelly, 28, who sang Houston's One Moment in Time at the New Hope Church when she graduated high school.
Houston will be buried Sunday next to her father, John Russell Houston Jr., at the Fairview Cemetery in nearby Westfield.
Booker said the city would lower flags to half-staff to honor Houston. "Our city is mourning the loss of one of its native daughters and one of music's shining stars," Booker said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also ordered state flags flown at half-staff, which drew criticism because of Houston's history of alcohol and drug abuse.
Christie, a Republican, was defended by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who noted that flags were lowered after last year's death of Clarence Clemons, a longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Christie said Houston's substance abuse history did not diminish "the good things she did in her life."
Christie has ordered flags to be lowered 43 times since taking office as governor in January 2010. The overwhelming majority of those instances -- 30 -- were for servicemembers from New Jersey killed in action.