Whitney Houston remembered at hometown funeral
NEWARK, New Jersey (AP) — The biggest names in entertainment clapped hands, swayed to gospel hymns and sang along with the choir at Whitney Houston's hometown funeral Saturday in the church where the future pop star once wowed the congregation as a young girl.
"We are here today, hearts broken but yet with God's strength we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston," the Rev. Joe A. Carter told the packed New Hope Baptist Church after the choir behind him sang "The Lord is My Shepherd."
Mourners including singer Jennifer Hudson and Houston's mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, stood, swayed and clapped along in the aisles. Gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans and the Rev. Kim Burrell joined with pop stars like Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder and R. Kelly in paying tribute to the 48-year-old pop superstar who first began singing in the Newark church.
"You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime," said music mogul Clive Davis, who shepherded Houston's career for decades.
The service had lighthearted moments too — Kevin Costner imagining a young Houston using her winning smile to get out of trouble, Houston's cousin Dionne Warwick offering short insights about the singer.
Others were more mournful; singer Ray J., who spent time with Houston during her last days, broke down crying. His sister, singer Brandy, put her arm around him. Cissy Houston and Houston's daughter, 18-year-old Bobbi Kristina, clutched each other in the front of the church. Toward the end of the service, Bobbi Kristina and Ray J. embraced at length and spoke. Others gathered near the front of the church and hugged each other.
The most powerful moment was reserved for the end. As Houston's silver casket was carried out, her hit "I Will Always Love You" played. Bobbi Kristina began crying, and the sobs of Houston's mother rang throughout the church.
"My baby!" she wailed.
Wonder and Oprah Winfrey were among the biggest names gathered to mourn Houston, along with Hudson, Monica, Brandy, and Jordin Sparks — representing a generation of big-voiced young singers who grew up emulating her.
Costner, her co-star in "The Bodyguard," which spawned her greatest hit "I Will Always Love You," remembered a movie star who was uncertain of her own fame, who "still wondered, 'Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?'"
"It was the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end," Costner said.
Filmmaker Tyler Perry praised Houston's "grace that kept on carrying her all the way through, the same grace led her all the way to the top of the charts. She sang for presidents."
Warwick presided over the funeral, introducing speakers and singers.
Houston's mother was helped by two people on either side of her as she walked in and sat with her granddaughter and other family to begin the service. Houston's ex-husband, Bobby Brown, briefly appeared at her funeral, walking to the casket, touching it and walking out. He later said in a statement that he and his children were asked repeatedly to move and he left rather than risk creating a scene.
Mourners fell quiet as three police officers escorted Houston's casket, draped with white roses and purple lilies. White-robed choir members began to fill the pews on the podium. As the band played softly, the choir sang in a hushed voice, "Whitney, Whitney, Whitney."
Close family friend Aretha Franklin, whom Houston lovingly called "Aunt Ree," had been expected to sing at the service, but she was too ill to attend. Franklin said in an email to The Associated Press that she had been up most of the night with leg spasms and sent best wishes to the family. "May God bless and keep them all," she wrote.
A program featuring a picture of Houston looking skyward read "Celebrating the life of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, a child of God." Pictures of Houston as a baby, with her mother and daughter filled the program.
"I never told you that when you were born, the Holy Spirit told me that you would not be with me long," Cissy Houston wrote her daughter in a letter published in the program. "And I thank God for the beautiful flower he allowed me to raise and cherish for 48 years."
"Rest, my baby girl in peace," the letter ends, signed "mommie."