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At Houston funeral, stories of faith, courage and love

By Phil Gast and Jason Carroll, CNN
February 19, 2012 -- Updated 1907 GMT (0307 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Houston's iconic recording of "I Will Always Love You" is played as her coffin is removed
  • Funeral program includes a letter from Cissy Houston to her daughter
  • Cissy Houston: "Your work is done"
  • Bishop T.D. Jakes speaks of victory over death

For complete coverage of Whitney Houston's death, tune in to CNN and HLN.

Newark, New Jersey (CNN) -- Whitney Houston went to church one last time Saturday.

She was welcomed by family, friends and a virtual audience of millions who watched as the pop superstar was remembered as a child of God with the voice of an angel.

A voice that never forgot its roots.

"Jesus Loves Me" was the last song Houston sang in public before her death February 11 in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 48.

So it was fitting that the mourners -- comforted and encouraged by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and R. Kelly -- heard the simple, but powerful, "Jesus Loves Me," this time performed by CeCe Winans.

Saturday's homegoing service was held at New Hope Baptist Church, where Houston, nicknamed "Nippy," was soloing in the junior choir by age 11.

Even with her ensuing fame, which brought six Grammy Awards, glamorous living and parties on the West Coast, and seven consecutive No. 1 singles, Houston never forgot her Newark, New Jersey, hometown.

Actor Kevin Costner, who starred with Houston in her first movie, "The Bodyguard," recounted how both of them grew up in the Baptist faith and had family members who sang in the choir.

"Church was our bond," Costner said.

Houston, the actor said, overcame her doubts about having what it took to earn the role in "The Bodyguard." She alone, Costner said, was the right choice.

"Now you are gone, too soon, leaving us with memories of a little girl who stepped bravely in front of this church, in front of the ones that loved you first," Costner said. "In front of the ones who loved you the best and loved you the longest. And boldly you stepped into the white hot light of the world's stage."

During the three-and-a-half-hour service, Houston's casket, covered with a large spray of flowers, rested in front of the altar.

While many of her fans lamented the fact that Houston's service was invitation-only, Pastor Marvin Winans, who delivered the eulogy, thanked Cissy Houston, Whitney's mother, for having the service at New Hope.

"That took a lot of courage. And because of that you brought the world to church today," Winans said during his eulogy.

The six-page funeral program contained color family photos and a letter from Cissy Houston.

The letter included the message, "God said 'It's time, Nippy. Your work is done.'" It was signed, "Thanks for being such a wonderful daughter. Love, Mommie."

Houston also left behind a daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, 18.

Through the tears and occasional laughter, performers and speakers spoke of Houston's loyalty.

Gospel singer and longtime friend BeBe Winans was visibly emotional as he recalled a memory of Houston's sense of humor.

With his sister, CeCe, by his side, he told the story of how Houston, then a major celebrity, informed them of her intent to sing background vocals on their new tour. When they told her she was too big a star to do that now, Houston responded, "You're my brother and sister, right?"

The exchange went on for a few minutes and then Houston told them, "Y'all broke, right? I'm rich, right? So I can buy what I want to for y'all."

Winans said that was the Whitney Houston he would remember. Then he sang, "I Really Miss You."

A "who's who" of musical performers adapted lyrics in tribute to Houston.

Gospel singer and friend Kim Burrell sang a reworked version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," adding glimpses of Houston's life to the lyrics. After finishing, she walked down to the pew where Cissy Houston sat and embraced her.

One of the most emotional moments in the service came when Keys sang "Send Me an Angel," her voice soaring into the rafters of the sanctuary.

Oprah Winfrey, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Spike Lee, and Houston's former husband, Bobby Brown, were among those in attendance. Brown walked by Houston's casket with his head down before the service began. Police said Brown and his entourage later left the church during the service.

At the time of her death, Houston was in the Los Angeles area for the 54th annual Grammy Awards and was to attend a party hosted by her longtime mentor and record producer, Clive Davis. She was discovered dead in her hotel suite. A cause of death has not been determined.

Mourners heard only a few indirect references to her personal battles. A close family friend told CNN on Tuesday that Houston had not used "hard drugs" for several years. Investigators are examining prescription drugs found in her hotel room.

Through her turmoil, speakers said, Houston remained true to her faith.

"In her final days, she held on to what you taught her to believe in," said Patricia Houston, Whitney's sister-in-law and former manager. "I promise you she did."

Ray Watson, Houston's bodyguard, recalled some of his last interactions with the singer.

"In our final days, she came in my room and she began to speak biblically," he said. "She laid her head on my shoulder and said, 'We are gonna be all right.'

Speakers, including Bishop T.D. Jakes and director-producer Tyler Perry, spoke of the promise of tomorrow.

"Death has not won. Your tears may flow. The flowers might wither," Jakes said. "You will find people you love may leave you outwardly, but (they) will not leave you inwardly."

At the conclusion of the service, Houston's iconic recording of "I Will Always Love You" was played as her coffin was removed from the sanctuary. Her mother leaned on her escorts as they helped her down the aisle.

Houston will be laid to rest Sunday at the Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, just south of Newark.

She has come home.

Never-seen photos of teenage Whitney Houston

CNN's Jason Carroll reported from Newark and Phil Gast from Atlanta. CNN's Raelyn Johson, Denise Quan, Melissa Gray, K.J. Matthews, Don Lemon, Chelsea J. Carter, Cathy Straight and Eden Pontz contributed to this report.

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