Newark's own, singer Whitney Houston, was welcomed home to the church where she began her singing career Saturday, in a rousing gospel-flavored funeral service before an audience of family, friends and celebrities.
"Whitney, today is your day," the Rev. Joe A. Carter, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, said in beginning the service.
A powerful choir of more than 100 singers, backed by a band that included drums and bass and horns, provided an emotional backdrop to a procession of singers, most of them from the world of gospel music.
Actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry spoke of what he termed the grace that carried Houston through her life. "There was a grace that carried her down through Miss Cissy Houston, a grace that brought her up through singing," Perry said. "There was a grace that kept on carrying all the way through."
Gospel singer Bebe Winans remembered an encounter with Houston as the two prepared to set out on a tour. He met Whitney in her closet, he said, which he described as being larger than the church. She told him she had bought uniforms for the band, a cream-colored suit for him and dresses for herself and other singers. "But this is not a material relationship, Whitney," he said he protested. "She said, 'Ya'll broke, right?," Winans said, as the audience roared with laughter. "And I'm rich, right? So I can buy what I want to for y'all, right?' And that is Whitney," Winans concluded.
Actor Kevin Costner, who co-starred with Houston in "The Bodyguard," remembered the surprising stories the two shared about growing up in the church, where his grandmother led the choir.
Singer Alicia Keys remembered Houston's friendship for younger female singers.
Legendary music producer Clive Davis, who met with Houston at his Beverly Hills hotel only days before she died, said she told him she was working to get back in shape to record again. "I'm swimming an hour a day, no cigarettes—I'm going to get those high notes back," Davis said Houston told him.
Houston's cousin, singer Dionne Warwick, introduced most of the guests.
The audience for the invitation-only service included a star-studded guest list including Costner, Warwick and Keys, as well as music world luminaries Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder. Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were also in attendance. Houston's godmother, Aretha Franklin, had to cancel her appearance because of health problems.
Leaving the church just before the funeral let out at around 3:40 p.m., Narada Michael Walden, who produced "The Bodyguard" soundtrack and several other Houston hit singles, told reporters that the ceremony was "very soulful, tearful and happy at the same time."
"Whitney was the sparkle in life," he said.
A motorcade escorting the Houston family arrived at the church shortly before noon.
Just after the gold hearse carrying Houston's body arrived at the Sussex Avenue church around 10 a.m., the Rev. Jesse Jackson emerged to a crush of media stationed on Nesbitt Street, calling the late singer one of the most talented performers of her time.
"She was just tremendous New Jersey talent," Jackson told local reporters. "She's in the gallery of greats in this state."
Houston, who was born in Newark and grew up in East Orange, became a local star singing in the youth gospel choir at New Hope Baptist Church, where mother Cissy Houston was a choirmaster.
Just after Houston's casket arrived, a procession of vehicles made its way down Dey Street to a parking lot located directly across the Sussex Avenue side of the church. A few dozen mourners then began filing into New Hope as SWAT Team officers stationed on a rooftop across the church looked on.
Georgetown University professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, who had just come from Whigham Funeral Home, where Houston's body has been kept since it arrived late Monday night, said the ceremony was "not a concert."
"This is a dignified celebration of her life, which means it has to have a certain decorum," he said.
Fans, some as far away as North Carolina, began amassing behind police barricades in the blocks surrounding Houston's childhood church holding t-shirts and posters memorializing the singer. Most were disappointed that they weren't allowed near the church, which was closed off by a radius of several blocks in each direction.
"I wished fans could get closer," said Bebe Reid, a 10-year resident of Newark. "She was an unparalleled artist. I pray she's in peace. In spite of her problems, she was a gift."
City officials who attended today's service said the Houston family's decision to return to her hometown reflected well on the city.
"They talk about Newark not being positive place but Newark, it is a positive place ... too many times negative things are said about our city but our city is a positive place, and I felt so great being part of the ceremony," said Councilman Luis Quintana.
"She was from here and her family was obviously very proud of it. Regardless of all the traveling she's done around the world they brought her back here to bring her home," said Julian Neals, the city's business administrator. "And other people who were born here and raised here in Newark ....can be proud in where they come from regardless of what may be said about Newark or this area."
"If it’s good enough for Whitney obviously it's good enough for everyone else," Neals added.
As dawn broke Saturday over Newark, gleaming light poured over New Hope Baptist, where a few fans spent the final minutes before police closed off the block tucking mementoes, balloons and pictures into the church's wrought iron fence.
Flower arrangements dotted a lower floor inside the church where Houston first sang in the youth gospel choir decades ago. A heart-shaped arrangement of white roses were signed by Franklin, Houston's godmother, while an elaborate piece spelled out "Greatest Love of All," one of Houston's hit songs, in red roses. Beyonce's mother, Tina Knowles, had sent over a leafy bouquet, and Grambling University, the historically black college, sent an arrangement as well.
Patch senior regional editor and Steve Johnson and West Orange Patch editor Karen Yi also contributed to this story.