Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston and me

Whitney Houston’s death triggered memories of the wedding I performed 34 years ago in which Whitney, then a pig-tailed twelve-year-old, sang with her mother. I was serving the Glen Ridge Congregational Church in New Jersey when I was contacted by a bride-to-be who wanted me to conduct her ceremony in our church. She was a beautiful woman, a well-known jazz disc jockey on an African-American radio station, who was marrying a musician (the marriage later turned abusive, but that is another story altogether). She was a member of New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, whose sanctuary was too small (and, it gradually came out, too humble) to host the celebrity wedding she had in mind. The choir director at New Hope was Cissy Houston, and the chance to meet and work with Cissy was likely a factor in my agreeing to perform the ceremony.

I met with the bride and groom several times, and we planned a service quite unlike anything this young white pastor had experienced. Cissy would sing, and her brother Nate would play the organ (this required quite a bit of negotiation with my music director, who was very protective of the fine organ). Several noted musicians would also perform. The guests would include the black musical aristocracy of the greater New York area.

Since Glen Ridge was a small, entirely white, affluent community that was pretty uptight on issues of race (during the 1967 riots in nearby Newark they blockaded all the streets leading into town, assuming the rioters would come to pillage), this seemed like a wonderful opportunity for the church to extend hospitality to the African-American community. Plus I would get to hang out with some very hip people.

Feeling out of my element, I called my friend and mentor Reuben Sheares, a national officer in the UCC and a respected black theologian, for a bit of coaching. “John,” he said, “the hardest thing for a white liberal like you to understand is that you got to take CPT (“colored people’s time”) seriously; that wedding is going to start when it wants to start.” Sure enough, the rehearsal began nearly an hour late. Nate, Cissy’s brother, ambled to the organ console. “Shee-it,” he said in wonder, “I ain’t never played nothing but no Hammond before.” I prayed my music director would never learn. He began tentatively, but soon was bringing out sounds I did not know that organ could make.

Cissy was scheduled to sing a solo, but she brought her little girl, Whitney, with her, and announced that they would be doing their first public duet. Whitney was shy, sweet, gangly and mildly buck-toothed. In all honesty, I was focused on her mother, one of the great back-up singers of all time. They sang wonderfully together.

When the hour arrived for the wedding to begin, there were no more than three of four guests wandering around the building. Most of them had some sort of request to make of me—aspirin, bobby pins, a phone. Reuben had prepared me for this: African-American pastors enjoyed more respect from their members than us white pastors, but they also had higher expectations and more demands placed upon them.

After a while Nate wandered in and began playing. More guests were drifting in, some even taking seats. About an hour after the wedding was to begin, with no word from the bride, a very large man holding a very small flute sought me out. He was to play a prelude, and wondered who would be announcing him. With that he began to list his credits: just played in a certain club, played on Stevie Wonder’s most recent album. Clearly I would be announcing him.

Some 45 minutes later the limo pulled up (the chauffeur was the only other white guy I had seen all afternoon) and the bride, looking radiantly beautiful, peppered me with questions. Had Joe (flute player) arrived yet? Yes, he was there. Who was going to announce him? That would be me.

Ninety minutes past the scheduled time for the ceremony, we were ready to begin. Nate had played everything he knew several times, so I motioned for him to halt. “Folks, we have a very special treat for you. Direct from his recent engagement at New York’s premier jazz club, Joe is going to play several numbers for us. His most recent recording…” I was into the zone.

Finally the bride and groom stood before me. I opened my mouth to begin the ceremony, but before I could get a word out Nate started rocking the organ again. The Spirit had informed Cissy that she and Whitney would perform their duet immediately, rather than when they were scheduled to. It was electrifying. When they sat down again it take me a full minute before I was able to speak the words “dearly beloved.”

The rest of that day is a blur in my memory. As noted earlier, things did not go well for the couple, and the bride later returned to me for pastoral care and counsel. I never again saw Cissy Houston, or her sweet young daughter, but I retained a bit of personal investment in Whitney, first as her career soared and then as her personal life crumbled. I believe that Cissy is still alive, and I cannot imagine the pain she has borne through these years, or the grief she now carries for her precious little girl. God bless you, Whitney; I pray that the pearly gates opened in a timely manner for you.