Photo Credit: CNN;CBS;Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Whitney Houston's "homegoing service" on Saturday afternoon opened to the exuberant strains of the white-robed New Hope Mass Choir and the New Jersey Mass Choir at the First Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J. Over 80 members strong, the singers clapped, swayed and belted out praise along to a house band led by Houston's longtime musical director and friend, Rickey Minor.
The choir members' powerful voices and smiling faces set the tone for the emotional funeral service that followed, one that lifted up the life a singer whose iconic voice stood out among even the most celebrated vocalists of her day. Though tears were plentiful, the overall tone was one of celebration.
The invitation-only service took place at the New Hope Baptist Church, Houston's childhood house of worship. The venue is meaningful, because at age 11, she followed in the footsteps of her mother Cissy, singing in the junior gospel choir there. It was the place that first nurtured Houston's talent, which ultimately led to a 30-year career as an iconic figure in the music world who died tragically at the age of 48 on Jan. 11.
Among the mourners were her ex-husband, Bobby Brown who, according to CNN, "walked past Whitney's casket. His eyes are red. He lowered his head and walked toward the back of the church." He left the service early amid controversy, later saying in a statement that security had asked him and his family to "move on three separate occasions."
Also in attendance were Houston's 18-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina, Whitney's on-again-off-again boyfriend, Ray J Norwood (who could be seen breaking down at the end of the service as Houston's casket passed by) and his sister Brandy, and scores of celebrities, including Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey and best friend Gayle King, Mary J. Blige, Monica and Queen Latifah.
"We welcome you to our home," announced the church's musical director. "And we gone have church today, because we believe in a mighty God. He's awesome through it all. It is well with my soul." Many of the speakers, including Houston's sister-in-law and manager Patricia Houston, spoke in spiritual terms about this God-loving woman, who happened to be known mostly for secular music.
And Kevin Costner, Houston's costar in The Bodyguard, told a touching story during his stirring tribute about Houston's screen test for the film, and the self-doubt that plagued her that day. "When you sing before [your heavenly Father], don't you worry," he told her, nearly choking up. "You'll be good enough." Watch Costner's emotional tribute below:
Next up was Wonder, who brought the crowd to its feet when he performed a few songs at the piano. "I understand that this song was one of her songs that she liked a lot," said Wonder, before launching his famous hit "Ribbon in the Sky." But in this version of the song, which he personalized for Houston, he referred to "Whitney's voice, a voice from a choir above….a gift from heaven's choir of love." He also referred to Houston when he sang, "You will always be a ribbon in the sky."
Singer R. Kelly delivered an emotional solo, visibly pulling himself together before belting out "I Look to You." "We love you, Whitney," he said. "Rest in peace." CeCe Winans closed out the service with her song, "Don't Cry for Me," with the lyrics, "No one is to blame, my death was meant to be....And when I'm gone, still carry on, don't cry for me." Then she called for everyone to join her in the chorus of "Jesus Loves Me."
Rickey Minor, Houston's musical director and longtime friend, offered up the many reasons why he loved Houston, from her voice to her looks to her hair and clothes. "I loved Whitney Houston for all those things and so much more," he said. "I believe that God sent her to me. She was my gift, and I was hers." In closing, Pastor Marvin Winans officially gave Houston's eulogy, thanking Cissy for "bringing the world to church today." He also called his gospel-star brothers to the pulpit for a heartfelt version of their song "Tomorrow," which a young Whitney Houston once sang.
Though Houston's godmother, Aretha Franklin, was too ill to perform, nearly all of those who did sing found themselves fighting back tears. Clearly, Whitney Houston was loved, and will be missed.
And fittingly, as her casket was delivered from the church, Houston's beautiful voice singing "I Will Always Love You" echoed throughout the New Hope Baptist Church.
The singer will be buried next to her father John Russell Houston Jr. on Sunday at the Fairview Cemetary in Westfield, N.J., in a private service.