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?