On February 18, 2012, the family of Whitney Houston paid their final respects in an invite only, yet televised homegoing service at her home church, New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. Initial reports had said that only BET was covering the full service, but certainly shocking to me, the major cable news networks of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News covered the entire service from beginning to the recessional. This isn’t a post to eulogize the wonderful talent that is and was Whitney Houston, but rather a cultural commentary on what Whitney’s homegoing service, an experience she didn’t get to see, meant for the larger culture.
Particularly on CNN, between the hosts of Piers Morgan, Soledad O’Brien and Don Lemon, they were all tripping over their words trying to set the most politically correct tone possible when speaking about this as a “traditional Baptist service.” To which myself and others, I’m sure, couldn’t help but roll our collective eyes. Even Don Lemon gave a cringe worthy comment when walking the street trying to get interviews from well wishers and invited guests to the services when he said this would be a service with “jumping and shouting and fanning.” That is to say, the experience that is the institutional Black Church as we know it, shouldn’t and can’t be expressed in those three words.
The Black Church, as we know it historically and even in a contemporary setting is not monolithic; indeed it is really black churches. What the nation, and indeed the world saw today was but a glimpse of an ecclesiastical culture that is unique to the black American experience. From the order of service, to the music, to the ebb of flow of words uttered by chosen guests and even the sermon. The collective swaying of the choir, to the ecstatic utterances from Donnie McClurkin to the emotion displayed by Ray J as the casket of Whitney Houston was carried out of the door.
This is but a glimpse of how we worship, and the world for a brief four hours in time was able to see that.
That being said, I, personally, am of the opinion that if you are aware that you have a national audience, you need to speak to the national audience. I do think that one can employ rhetoric that speaks to the immediate and present persons and one that transmits through the TV and other mediums.
I’ll never forget when Albertina Walker, the Queen of Gospel music as she was called, died. I happened to be living in Chicago at the time and people were questioning me about what church was this that the funeral was to be held at. I knew the church just because of my proximity to it and that it was a church my mother used to go to when she was growing up. Not to mention, it was Albertina Walker’s church where she held her membership and it was an historic church that was institutional in Chicago as it was a home church to many of those who arrived during the Great Migration.
What was peculiar about it was that this was a public figure, nationally known, having a funeral at a smaller church. Now a public musical was held two days prior at Apostolic Church of God to accommodate the large crowds, but the homegoing services were held in a much smaller church.
I’ll never forget watching the online stream of the services where the pastor of the church, in the middle of his eulogy decided to address the critics. The pastor took the time to put people in their place, so to speak, surrounding the issue of why the services were held at his church and why he was chosen to speak and not a preacher with larger recognition.
I cringed in my seat.
The problem, as I saw it, with that type of rhetoric was that it was highly localized and frankly it did nothing but detract from celebrating the life of the deceased: Albertina Walker. The pastor of the church was relatively unknown at the time, and guess what? He’s still unknown. If he had simply preached a great eulogy, people would have been more inclined to remember him as the pastor who preached a wonderful eulogy about Albertina Walker. Unfortunately since he didn’t say much and what he did say did nothing to call to attention the reason they had gathered that day, no one outside of his circle knows who he is.
Today, Marvin Winans, pastor of the Perfecting Church and part of the Winans family, a gospel singing group was charged with the task of delivering the eulogy for Whitney Houston.
To be frank, there wasn’t much positive I could say about his eulogy.
Now, I know there are varying schools of thought when it comes to preaching eulogies. Some question the necessity of using a scripture as a text to preach from, or the need for a theme or title to preach about. Some see a eulogy as merely a call to be saved by the members while others believe that rather than preach a text or a title, one ought to indeed eulogize the person who has died. Some believe if you know the person, you ought to most certainly talk about the person, and if you don’t, one should talk about Life and Death and what does that all really mean when a family loses one of their.
Amazingly, Marvin Winans didn’t do any of that.
Now, I’ve caught bits and pieces of Marvin preaching over the years and there’s one sermon of his I’ve heard in it’s entirety that’s on YouTube his famous “That’s It, and That’s All” sermon he preached a few years back. I think by the time I heard the aforementioned sermon, I knew my personal theology didn’t align with his. However, his theology aside, the sermon lacked a certain cohesiveness that I think was needed for such an occasion as this.
For me, Pastor Winans failed to give a good word over the life of Whitney Houston as he never mentioned her once in his discourse. Additionally, he didn’t say anything directly encouraging to the family and certainly not to the thousands of persons who had tuned in via television. I think when it comes to basic pastoral care that needs to be done in the pulpit, comfort in the time of sudden and unexpected grief is needed and it seemed that Pastor Winans was drawing from an empty well when it came to giving words of comfort to a family that has lost its daughter, sister, cousin, mother and even ex-lover.
Not only did Winans seem to falter with his basic tasks, it was just a poorly organized sermon. We went from Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount to a story about reading car manuals and why the Bible is our manual and by the time he meandered through controversial doctrines we ended up with him endorsing a prosperity theology. Let me be honest, by that moment, I had abandoned all hope for a decent sermon and I would have been shocked for him to make sense of it all.
The whole time, I kept waiting for him to turn to Cissy Houston and say something direct and personal to her about Whitney, and that moment never came.
What I heard was a’ many a well-turned phrase, some basic catchphrase theology, his Pentecostal and therefore theologically conservative theology conflated into a sermon that had little if any practical application. I couldn’t even give him the benefit of the doubt that he was really making a plea for persons to take this moment to get saved and get right with Christ which is sometimes par for the course when preachers have to preach the eulogies of persons who have died through violent means. I couldn’t say that because he gave no practical applications, and he use of ecclesiastical language meant that he was only talking to church people.
The sermon Marvin Winans preached was more fitting for a Sunday morning service than for a eulogy for someone so famous and iconic. Personally, I don’t care about an altar call, or really calling for persons to get saved, that’s not really what I look for in preaching, but rather something that raises, or at least broadens one’s consciousness culturally, socially, political etc. all while having a conversation with theology. If I wasn’t already self-identified as Christian, there was nothing Marvin said that really piqued my interest enough; there was nothing digestible that he said. It was if one were eating rice cake–no flavor, no taste, and little if any nutritional value, certainly nothing that could solely sustain you for any length of time.
Winans did nothing to raise or broaden the Houston family’s consciousness, let alone the nation’s consciousness, about Whitney Houston, nor God or Jesus for that matter. Using extremely churchy language did nothing to open the door and give someone with little or no church experience to want to come into the conversation and sit and listen for a while.
Alas, I know I’m being hyper-critical of Pastor Winans, but preaching what amounts to a national eulogy opens him up to the criticism. I am not suggesting that because of a national audience one ought to put on a show so that larger society doesn’t look at us as caricatures, but I honestly hope that people who are not a part of the black church tradition don’t think that Marvin Winans’ preaching is a middle-of-the-road and representative of the comprehensive black church experience–it is not. Rather, I believe Marvin preached out of his context.
Some say he didn’t let loose as he might have wanted to given another setting. I disagree. Well to an extent. Obviously Marvin is a whooper and he obviously didn’t do that, and I wish he had. I think if he had closed, it would have done wonders for how his sermon went over with many persons. Based on Facebook statuses and tweets, people were expecting that performative aspect that has become unique and synonymous with a black church experience.
Ironically, where I believe Marvin Winans failed, Tyler Perry excelled.
Tyler had the first word of encouragement and in recalling the life of Whitney. He related a text to her life, and the life of her preach the text. Granted it was short and simple, it still did the job.
Given the confines he had to work with, Matthew chapter six, verse 25, Winans had an opportunity to raise the level of consciousness beyond our earthly lives and to prioritize the things in life that matter. That is to say, we should leave a legacy, as Whitney did, through her talents. The talents that are given to us and those gifts that we pick up on our journey are not for our own self-aggrandizement but for the betterment of our own sisters and brothers whom we encounter daily. I would have suggested that we prioritize the people we have in our lives in addition to the things that we do in life. And I believe by the time you get to verse 33, it provides a proper close for a Christian context about seeking first the reigndom of God and everything else will fall into place.
Personally, I would have went back to Romans 8, as Tyler Perry did simply because I find great joy in understanding God as Love, an inseparable love indeed.
To that end, Whitney, we love you, we miss, take your rest and go on home.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL