On any other day, this would have just been a who's who of R&B, soul, pop and gospel luminaries.
But the impressive number of stars gathered Saturday at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., were paying tribute and saying their goodbyes to Whitney Houston, whose sudden death a week ago rocked the music world.
Hundreds of mourners, among them Tyler Perry, Mary J. Blige, Kevin Costner, Clive Davis, Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keys and Newark mayor Cory Booker attended the private funeral, which started shortly after noon.
Houston's ex-husband, Bobby Brown, who vowed to be there in support of their 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, arrived at the church but left shortly thereafter. Brown was spotted being consoled by fellow mourners before leaving. Although there were reports that Brown was not permitted inside the building, Brown subsequently released a statement saying that he and his children had been asked to change seats several times and that he was prevented from seeing Bobbi Kristina, and thus "departed as I refused to create a scene."
The deeply spiritual service, which was hosted by Warwick and featured a eulogy by pastor Marvin Winans, who officiated at Brown and Houston's wedding, began with both the New Hope Mass Choir and the New Jersey Mass Choir singing "The Lord Is My Shepherd."
At around 9:35 a.m., the singer's remains arrived in a golden hearse at the church, which was patrolled by police officers on horseback while a SWAT team monitored from nearby rooftops.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the first to arrive. Standing outside the church, he told reporters, "We feel such awesome pain, the suddenness of Whitney's transition...Forty-eight years is not a very long time. Sometimes bright lights burn out quickly. But when we have them, we get so much illumination. From her, we got that joy."
Also outside was Houston's grade-school principal from her days in South Orange, Henry Hamilton. "It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining," he told reporters. "She's up there; this is Whitney's day."
Fans gathered in two areas near the church, but police encouraged them to step aside. While several fans sang, one enterprising man sold buttons with Houston's image.
Aretha Franklin was expected to perform at the service, but she didn't attend. The soul legend released a statement saying that although she wanted to be there, "I had terrible leg spasms following my concert last night" and was sad to be unable to make it. Keys stepped in for Franklin and performed instead. Inside the church, a choir, whose members were all decked out in glorious white outfits, sang and clapped jubilantly as guests filled the building.
Bobbi Kristina arrived just as the service was about to begin, and Newark mayor Cory Booker opened the proceedings by saying: "May we understand that while we weep now, weeping may endure through the night, but joy—joy cometh in the morning."
Warwick introduced Perry, who remembered his beloved friend: "There are two constants that I know about Whitney Houston. There was a grace that carried her fom heaven down through Miss Cissy Houston, a grace that brought her up through singing. The other thing I know for sure: Whitney Houston loved the Lord."
Afterward, Costner, Houston's The Bodyguard costar, spoke to the congregation and remembered how he and Houston talked about going to Baptist churches when they were growing up. "The days of church were good ones for us, and we both remembered how our parents tried to explain God, and his plan for our lives, and this promise that if we listened carefully, God's voice would somehow come to us."
Music played a starring role in the service: soaring, moving, rejuvenating. Keys paid tribute to Houston with a rousing rendition of her song "Prelude to a Kiss." Before she took the mic, she said, "I think [Whitney's] an angel to us, and a beautiful human being."
Wonder serenaded Houston with "Love's in Need of Love Today," while R. Kelly sang her hit, "I Look to You." CeCe Winans belted out Houston's tender ballad "Don't Cry," and afterward implored everyone to join her in singing "Jesus Loves Me," which was the last song Houston sang in public at Kelly Price's pre-Grammys bash.
Houston's extended family spoke lovingly and touchingly about the beloved pop star.
Davis, Houston's mentor and father figure, said that "Whitney was purely and simply one of a kind. Yes, she admitted to crises in her life. Yes, she confessed to Oprah about her searing battles. But when I needed her, she was there for me."
Sister-in-law Patricia Houston also remembered the star's generous spirit. "Even when she was tired and a bit lost, she gave and gave, and then gave some more," she says. "When she didn't want to do things, she did it anyway, and we are so much better because of it."
Rev. Marvin Winans, who officiated at Houston's marriage to Brown, delivered a galvanizing eulogy that lasted for almost an hour. Throughout, he broke into song and enjoined the congregation to affirm the day's positive message of remembrance and tribute.
As he wrapped up, he said: "Father, we thank you for this life of Whitney Elizabeth 'Nippy' Houston. We thank you that she was a dear friend, and we echo all the sentiments of those who have come to show their love...Let us leave here recognizing that Whitney left too soon. Let us leave here impacted by her life." He then launched into a tender rendition of "Let The Church Say Amen," as the choir joined him in song.
Afterward, pallbearers carried the star's casket down the aisle as "I Will Always Love You" played on the sound system, her singular voice reverberating across the church.
A VIP reception was being held following the service at One Newark Center, with Tyler Perry and Kevin Costner among the guests who attended.
Police set up a six-block perimeter around the church to discourage crowds from forming, and no large video screens were set up outside to show the proceedings. Instead, a small number of cameras allowed inside covered the service for TV and webcasts.
"We're going to church and we're not going to be worried about if the world can get in," Winans told CNN's Anderson Cooper a couple of days ago.
The city was ready for the crush, however. Two staging areas were set up, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, and New Jersey Transit planned to have extra light rail cars and buses running to accommodate demand.
A smaller group, including Davis and Warwick, attended a private viewing at Whigham Funeral Home late Friday afternoon.
Houston was born in Newark and her family moved to East Orange when she was 4. She will be laid to rest tomorrow at Fairview Cemetery alongside her father, John Russell Houston Jr., who died in 2003.
Today, flags at Newark's municipal buildings and at state buildings flew at half-staff on order from Booker and Gov. Chris Christie.
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