A Funeral Fit for a True Church Girl

by Janelle Harris

Whitney Houston has gone home to glory, and the powerhouse voice that punctuated two decades of our special moments and fond memories—for me, belting “How Will I Know” into my grandmother’s kitchen utensils when I was a kid and sassing my way through “It’s Not Right But It’s OK” when my boyfriend was acting up in college—will only be accessible through old albums and YouTube clips. She gave us theme songs for the highlight reels of our lives and for the past week, hers has been picked apart and speculated on and ridiculed and gossiped about. But on Saturday, her homegoing celebrated Whitney the person, not Whitney the tabloid headline-maker, or Whitney the troubled diva, or Whitney the butt of distasteful jokes or, Lord have mercy, Whitney the ex-wife of Bobby Brown. She was sent off in a service befitting a queen, just like she would’ve wanted. Whitney, as her eulogist Pastor Marvin Winans said, brought the world to church.

There is no shortage of fault-finding when it comes to the spiritual subcultural machine that is the Black church. Heck, I’m a product of it and even I’m not disillusioned about the chaotic dust-ups that distract from the mission of soothing and saving souls. Judgments are passed, archaic logistics are wielded and fallen leaders are frequently toppled in the aftermath of what-Jesus-wouldn’t-do scandals. And that’s become the unfortunate focus of the church experience. The reputation has become more about the drama than the victory.

But like the human beings that comprise the body of believers, there is a beauty even in the fallibility of the Black church. There is a warmth and sincerity in the fellowship, even if it comes from a comedic cast of characters who can be almost stereotypical: the fanning, hallelujah-ing, big-hat wearin’ ladies in the congregation; the frownin’, finger-pointin’ ushers; the brow-wipin’, Holy Ghost-solicitin’ preachers whose hoot and holler is the backbone of good Word. They may fall short in their own walk but it doesn’t mean the Father can’t use them to vocalize just the right thing His people need to hear at just the right time.

The church has always been the center of my life and sometimes I get so busy being immersed in the routine of the activities—scurrying to Bible study, running late for choir practice, deciding between 9:00 or 11:00 service—that I miss the awesomeness of its orchestration, not only because it’s holy ground but because it’s ripe with the inherent Africanisms that make us us. Watching Whitney Houston’s homegoing, and picturing her as a little girl singing with that golden voice at New Hope Baptist, reminded me of not only the gifts that come from the church, but the gift that is the church, from the call and response to the freedom to openly express emotion.

Say what you want about Christianity or organized religion or the body in general. We wouldn’t be where we are as a people if it wasn’t for the church. Contrary to criticism, it doesn’t anesthetize pain. It equips folks to go out on the frontlines and face the day-to-day issues that come with the territory of being Black in America. No one struggles with the joys of life. Those are easy. It’s the concerns and problems and challenges that can take us down into depression and helplessness. But for an hour or two in a pew, even in one of those little storefront, clapboard structures, there’s relief. Joy. Companionship. And even, in the midst of all the hub bub, love. Out of that, Whitney Houston became the woman that she was.

During the service, I learned things about her that I never knew. How much of a giver she was. How she was so willing to reach back and help younger artists get their footing in the music industry. In the midst of that, the Holy Spirit stopped by to pay a visit, not in a shouting frenzy, but in a subtle show-up that comforted the people who loved her. Death is the cruelest reality, the unfortunate consequence of life. But death is not nearly as devastating if the preceding life was a full one. Whitney Houston was a pop star, a cash cow for her label, a legend across genres. But she was first and foremost a church girl, and her homegoing set her iconic status aside and showed there is always purpose in death, even if it’s to give people church at its best.

Did you watch the service? What did you think?

  • CD86

    No, I missed it because I was asleep. I only watched a few clips online though. I am not a religious person or church-going, so I have no thoughts on it really.

  • http://www.angstandhumor.blogspot.com Shiks

    That church service was EVERYTHING. I enjoyed it to the max. I loved that it was a celebration of her life.God bless Cissy for giving us that.

  • http://afrikanmami.blogspot.com African Mami

    Nope, and I will not have anything to do with funeral services. Tired of them.

  • Cia

    I really enjoyed it, I thought it was tasteful and everyone seem sincere. I grew up in a wonderfully warm Baptist church and the whole service was comfortingly familiar. Many are criticizing the family for showing it but it was a wonderful way to see her roots and a part of her life unfamiliar to many. Also what a wonderfully uplifting blessing the service was! This was a nice piece and quite positive (which is becoming a rarity on the Clutch these days).

  • overseas_honeybee

    Awesome service. Very well done. It was a blessing to be able to watch it and see her being celebrated as Whitney the mother, sister, daughter and friend. We all know she struggled with her demons and made some poor choices but at the end of the day she was still loved and honored for the person she was beyond the fame and tabloids. The eulogy hit it on the head and I’m sure caused some folks to reevalute their own choices. Now is the time to seek Him …

  • Mahogany

    “…there is always purpose in death, even if it’s to give people church at its best.” Amen to that. Someone said the same think at my church.
    That homegoing was amazing. The entire 4 hours I felt like I was sitting in the pews. Cissy did the right thing and she took the whole world to church. Whitney was reaching out to people during her time on earth but even through death she was doing so. May she rest in peace.

  • ruggie

    A loving, inspiring and deeply moving service that honored Whitney Houston well.

  • ruggie


  • Kacey

    I started to watch it, then it began to remind me of how much I dislike church services so I went shopping. Glad I did – heard it ran 4 hours long, ugh! RIP Whitney.

  • girlformerlyknownasgrace

    Thank you for this article. I know spirituality has no place in the lives of some people, but for others it does. I dont feel the need to defend my Christianity but most times i really dont feel like hearing other people bash it either. I didnt watch the service but i saw clips of it online. It was good.

  • Dalili

    This piece is so well written, it captured my exact feelings about the church. Thank you!

    I’d decided not to watch the service, but changed my mind at the last minute. I am glad I did. It was respectful, poignant, joyful, funny and most of all loving. I loved Bebe, TD Jakes and Kevin Costners’ tributes. It’s been a while since I’ve been to church and this made me miss it.

  • sli

    Great comment–and great article Ms. Harris

  • Tiffany

    To be honest, I have had problems with religion and Christianity for the longest, though I do consider myself spiritual. But that service was indeed EVERYTHING! It truly was a blessing and I felt like I experienced something greater than just watching a funeral. I and many other people were taken to church on Saturday. I’m glad Cissy and her family got to do Whitney’s home going the way they wanted to and honored Whitney the girl from Newark who made it big.

  • Ms. Information

    Beautiful service…

  • twee

    It actually has a place in the lives of everyone, the sad thing is many will find that out when it’s too late for those that will have none of it as well as those who believe we are spiritual beings but doesn’t know who God truly is.

  • Stephanie

    I loved it.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    The only problem I saw with the service was why in the heck was RKelly there!?. And not just there but in the pulpit singing. I guess there is just no price to pay for harming Black girls.

    Otherwise it was a beautiful service.

  • Alexis Nicole

    Janelle, you said it best: “But on Saturday, her homegoing celebrated Whitney the person, not Whitney the tabloid headline-maker, or Whitney the troubled diva, or Whitney the butt of distasteful jokes.” The world witnessed Whitney in a dignified light one last time. I am so thankful the Houston family allowed her homegoing to be televised. The service was beautiful. I felt every emotion from sadness to joy within the four-hour span; I lost all control during the recessional. Overall, the service provided a sense of comfort and informed me on Whitney the person. I knew she was reared in the church, but never knew how strong her faith was in God. I know she is in God’s safety. I continue to pray for strength and healing for the Houston & Brown families, friends and fans all over.

  • PrettiCoils27

    R. Kelly was there because he wrote the song “I Look to You” for Whitney Houston. Maybe his family thought it was fitting for him to sing the song he wrote for her. Whitney and R.Kelly had a professional relationship. Nonetheless, I think he did a great job. I shed a few tears myself.

  • entro

    It made me miss going to church.I too have had problems with some people in the church and have just decided to study on my own. T.D.Jakes, Tyler perry(did you guys catch him sounding like madea lol) bebe winans story of crazy whitney(hilarious) cece winans (my God she has an anointing-always thought she sounded like whitney or better)
    The most touching and heart breaking was the end when the pallbearers lifted he casket onto their shoulders as I will always love you played in the background.
    God has a wonderful way of using tragedy for his glory. His glory and omnipotence was shown through this service

  • overseas_honeybee

    I say this out of love … for those who mentioned having “issues” with the church etc. Please do not let that stop or hinder your pursuit of Christ or finding a church to worship in. We definitely have some knuckleheads and hypocrites in the pulpit and in the pews who are not true representatives of what they proclaim. Don’t let that discourage you from worshipping with other believers. That’s so important. There is only so much we can do at “home” or on our own. We were designed to be joined to a “body” for strength and support and to learn our purpose within God. It’s never too late.

  • http://www.urbantravelgirl.com UrbanTravelGirl

    EXCELLENT article — thanks for sharing this perspective!! As someone from the South Side of Chicago now living in a small French village, I watched every minute of that four-hour funeral on my laptop Saturday and “had church” all by myself. It made me so grateful for my black Baptist church roots — and so proud to see it displayed on international TV and the Internet for everyone to see. God bless Cissy Houston in her wisdom for “bringing the world to church.” By broadcasting that classy and authentic “homegoing service” across the globe, Whitney probably brought more people together than anything she did in life.

    I wrote a similar piece about this on my blog yesterday (http://urbantravelgirl.com/2012/02/20/thanks-whitney-for-bringing-the-world-to-church/). Thank God for our sister Whitney!


  • Roberta


  • Buttons

    I thoroughly enjoyed Whitney’s homegoing service. I sat patiently through the entire four hours and I’m glad I did. Listening to what everyone had to say made me appreciate her even more. BeBe’s story, her bodyguard’s, and her sister in law’s memories of her was the most moving for me. The fact that she wanted to sing back ground for BeBe and CeCe in the height of her career really showed that she was not overcome by fame. Her bodyguard was looking out for her, but SHE was looking out for him. Wow, I thought that was so beautiful. She really was a loving spirit. But, the end was so sad. It was like the final good bye. It was truly a beautiful and touching service.

  • entro

    You know I recently saw a video on black and married with kids where she actually did sing backup for them on arsenio in 1989. Its so sad that she is being defined by her flaws by so many.it appears she was a caring humble person that like us all had some problems. There’s a song that says “a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.I wish that more people would realize that God does not look upon sin as having levels but those without sin can cast the first stone. We all know there are none of us that are without sin

  • Tumaini

    Amazing article..so well said. I also thoroughly enjoyed the service, was blessed by it. And I thought it was just the most perfect homegoing they could have planned.

  • Pearlsrevealed

    Great blog post Lady! Also read all the comments and enjoy many of the links.

  • Pearlsrevealed

    I so agreed with this article. I was blown away by Whitney’s homegoing. My fav was Kim Burrell’s personalization of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come”. Who knew Tyler Perry had a preach in him?!?! Donnie, Stevie, the Winan’s clan and all of their silliness, Kevin and her real bodyguard Ray..I was blessed by everyone. The funeral home staff was so dignified.

    The only thing that sort of creeped me out was Clive Davis. I have never had an opinion about him but I just found his choice of words made me want to puke. I know he was her industry father but his attempt to capture the closeness of their relationship (her coming to his bungalow in her pajamas) was bordering on inappropriate.

  • So Over This Ish

    A person can be spiritual but not religious…hopefully that makes sense. I consider myself to be highly spiritual, but I’m not religious. I respect the beliefs of others, though.

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