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'We celebrate the life of Whitney Houston'
Updated 2/18/2012 4:23 PM ET
NEWARK — Saturday's New Hope Baptist Church funeral service for Whitney Houston was more celebratory than somber, touching on the pop singer's flaws, but relishing her talent, beauty, compassion and love for others.

"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 entertainment industry A-listers who filled the pews and aisles of New Hope church, where Houston, known as "Nippy," began singing with the junior gospel choir at age 11.

The service touched a range of emotions, ranging from tears to heartfelt laughter over the course of nearly four hours, peeling back the public veneer of troubled superstar to reveal the generous, dedicated artist, friend and mother those close to her loved and relished.

INTERACTIVE: A look back at Houston's life, career INTERACTIVE: A family tree of musical influences MORE: Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

Booker was preceded and followed by New Hope's rousing gospel choir, which performed several songs ahead of a series of poignant speeches and performances at the service, which started shortly after noon and wrapped after a eulogy and song from the Rev. Marvin Winans at 3:41 p.m. ET.

Houston's coffin was then carried from the church by pallbearers as her haunting ballad, I Will Always Love You, played over loudspeakers.

Actor Kevin Costner, Houston's co-star in 1992 box-office hit The Bodyguard, poignantly recalled how nervous the then-neophyte actress was before a screen test for her first movie role.

Despite the difference in age, race and background, the two shared their Baptist faith. "It was easy for us to laugh — the church was what we knew. It was our private bond," he said.

Voice cracking as he tried to remain composed, Costner said he knew Houston was perfect for the film's central role of a diva singer. But Costner had to convince both the studio and Houston — even postponing filming for a year when the singer was out on concert tour. Nervous before her screen test, "the biggest pop star in the world wasn't sure she was good enough," he said.

"The inexplicable burden that comes with fame — call it doubt, call it fear — I've had mine," Costner said. "The Whitney I knew was still wondering if I'm good enough. Am I pretty enough? Will they like me? It was what made her great, and what caused her to stumble at the end."

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.

Costner urged supporters to suspend their sorrow and anger over Houston's death, "just long enough to remember the sweet miracle of Whitney."

Record mogul Clive Davis, who molded and shaped Houston's career after seeing her perform with her mother at a nightclub in 1983, spoke of Houston's humility and talent.

"Purely and simply, she was one of a kind. Yes, she admitted to the crazies and to Oprah (Winfrey) her searing battles," Davis said. "But when I needed her, she was there for me. She was an eternally loyal friend. Whatever the cause or event."

The two spoke extensively last Tuesday about a new album. "It was like old times," Davis said. "She was getting in shape, swimming for an hour or two a day. No cigarettes. Plenty of vocal exercises." Davis said Houston told him she would be ready in August.

Houston's longtime musical director, Rickey Minor, spoke of their collaborations in the studio and on tour, and her feisty side. A highlight of their professional pairing was her show-stopping rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl.

"As popular and powerful as she was, she was so brilliantly liberal (in her generosity) with others," said gospel singer Kim Burrell, a longtime friend.

"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, one of 17 speakers who were scheduled to deliver remarks or sing. "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."

The service underscored 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 a 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."

The invitation-only service was attended by about 1,500. Houston's family closely guarded much of the 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.

Said sister-in-law and manager Patricia Houston: "Today is my prayer that you will remember the love that she gave to everyone."

Actor/producer Tyler Perry recalled meeting Houston at an Atlanta restaurant several years ago where she spoke of her sadness, but also of her faith in God. "Say whatever you want, but God was for her, and she is resting with the angels." Singer Bebe Winans spoke and sang with emotion and humor, leaving the pulpit wiping away tears.

Saturday's service also featured performances by Stevie Wonder, 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 said in an e-mail to the Associated Press that she was too ill to attend because of leg spasms.

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.

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.

Aside from another album, Houston was to star in the remake of the movie Sparkle and was working on new music. Friends and fans were hopeful.

"The six weeks of filming were the happiest days of her life," Patricia Houston said. "Her work ethic was impeccable. She was on top of her game. She put the spark in Sparkle."

Newark Police provided escorts to the celebrities, including Elton John, Bill Cosby, Beyoncé, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Jordin Sparks, Brandy and her brother Ray J, the singer who was with Houston in her final days.

Houston's ex-husband, Bobby Brown, who had been estranged from her family, planned to attend with the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina. But Brown left shortly after the service began. Celebrity website TMZ said he left because he wasn't permitted to bring in a nine-person entourage. The Rev. Jackson told CNN that Houston's family also refused to allow Brown to sit in a front-row seat.

Hundreds of fans camped outside a cordoned-off area several blocks away before dawn, some singing Houston hits or dancing. Some started a church service of their own.

Carol Smith, of Saddle Brook, N.J., called out a preacher's cadence as Houston fans gathered around her in front Newark's St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church. Houston "loved God. She knew that God loved her. He loves you, too," Smith, 40, told revelers, who alternately shouted, prayed and raised hands skyward in fellowship. "And he has not forgotten about you. … Choose life. This is how we honor the Houston family."

Saadiqua Conner, of Wilmington, Del., left home at 5 a.m. for Newark. "Whitney was love," said 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.

"You need a key chain? Two for $5," Dinetta Gilmore told fans browsing through Whitney Houston themed goods. "This is what I do everyday. This is how I pay my bills," Gilmore said. "But today, getting paid is a bonus. I would have been here regardless. Because it's Whitney. She's the soundtrack of our life."

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.

Scores of brightly colored balloons, bouquets of flowers and handwritten signs of sympathy were outside the church.

Houston will be buried Sunday next to her father, John Russell Houston Jr., at the Fairview Cemetery in nearby Westfield.

Booker ordered the city to 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," he said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also ordered state flags flown at half-staff.

Contributing: Elysa Gardner; Alesha Williams of the Asbury Park Press; and the Associated Press

Posted 2/18/2012 10:49 AM ET
Updated 2/18/2012 4:23 PM ET
Alexis Hickman, 28, of Trenton, N.J., sings Whitney Houston songs a few blocks down Sussex Avenue from New Hope Baptist Church before Houston's funeral Saturday.
By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY
Alexis Hickman, 28, of Trenton, N.J., sings Whitney Houston songs a few blocks down Sussex Avenue from New Hope Baptist Church before Houston's funeral Saturday.

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