Opinion: The Whitney Houston I knew
Rev. DeForest Soaries says teen Whitney Houston, shown with her mom Cissy, turned choir rehearsal into a "praisefest."
February 13th, 2012
07:13 PM ET

Opinion: The Whitney Houston I knew

Editor’s Note: Rev. DeForest "Buster" Soaries is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey. He is a former Secretary of State of New Jersey, and was featured in "Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special.” Soaries was a friend of Whitney Houston’s and has been close with her family for more than 40 years.

By Rev. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., Special to CNN

(CNN) - The year was 1977. All of northern New Jersey was thrilled because the world famous gospel singers, the Hawkins Family, had accepted my invitation to appear at a free, area-wide event. And they had agreed to sing with a mass gospel choir that would consist of 300 singers from churches in Newark and the vicinity.

When the choir first met to rehearse for the event, we realized someone would have to sing the lead part of the Hawkins’ hit song “Changed.” I turned to the choir director, who was a musician for Cissy Houston and the New Hope Baptist Church of Newark, and asked “Where’s Nippy?” He immediately summoned the teenager who had accompanied him to the rehearsal - 14-year-old Whitney “Nippy” Houston.

By the time Whitney finished singing the song, the rehearsal had been completely changed – dismantled and turned into a kind of “praisefest” and revival service. This child had invoked a level of divine inspiration that involved the kind of joyous tears and emotional shouts that were characteristic of the black religious experience. Not only did Whitney’s singing completely transform the atmosphere, but it was clear to everyone in that rehearsal that they were in the presence of an unusual talent and that they were eyewitnesses to a superstar taxiing on the runway of success and fame.

Of course this scene was not unique. It happened Sunday after Sunday in any church where Whitney sang. It would happen during weeknights when Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston, and her aunt Anne Drinkard, would rehearse with their own choirs in their church. I remember many times sneaking into New Hope Church during one of their choir rehearsals hoping to get just a slice of the newest musical meal being cooked by this young vocal prodigy. After Whitney sang one Sunday afternoon at Revival Temple church for one of those choir marathons (it was actually a choir anniversary celebration), the pastor, the late Bishop Jeff Banks, told all of us in attendance, “nobody that young [16] should be able to sing like that. It should be illegal.” Bishop Banks himself was a professional gospel music recording artist.

Whitney’s father, John Houston, was a part of the political movement that produced Newark, New Jersey’s first African American mayor in 1970, Kenneth Gibson. She inherited from both of her parents a keen but little known interest in, and passion for, issues, projects and people that improved the plight of blacks and other disadvantaged populations. This is why she was so honored to meet and develop a relationship with South African leader Nelson Mandela.  Whenever we spoke over the years, Whitney always took an interest in discussing whatever community project I was working on and she herself was determined to make a difference in people’s lives.  She supported many local groups financially– almost always anonymously.  She also gave help to some local politicians.

Despite the fact that Whitney attended a prestigious Catholic High School, genuinely cared about the disadvantaged and had an angelic voice, she was no angel. But none of us are angels nor do we know an angel. And since she did not have the luxury of dancing with her demons in private, as most of us do, her un-angelic traits are all too familiar. It would be a real tragedy to allow her flaws to become her legacy.

Cameras did not appear the night that she called me distraught because her best friend’s mother died and the woman needed the assistance of a minister. Whitney recommended me to help her friend through the grief and do the eulogy at the funeral. That is the caring Whitney that I knew.

Only those who were present at her cousin Dee Dee Warwick’s funeral in 2008 will understand how moving it was to see this global superstar leave her seat at the end of the service and join the choir in singing “The Lord is My Shepherd.” After I delivered the eulogy, Whitney approached me and thanked me for my message. At the cemetery she held my arm and promised to get in touch with me soon – just to talk.

The talk never happened. That was my last conversation with Whitney.

Whitney Houston was a superstar whose human qualities far outnumbered her well-known struggles.  As I write this I’m reminded of a very anxious, very animated, teenaged Whitney leaning over a table at a McDonald’s in East Orange, New Jersey.  She was frustrated by, but cooperative with, her parents’ unwillingness to allow her professional music career to commence too quickly. She began naming the artists whose careers were rising and who she knew she could match vocally.

I assured her that her parents, John and Cissy, knew what they were doing.  I also remember telling her that when she did “come out,” the world would recognize what all of her friends already knew - she was a voice that would never be ignored and will never be forgotten.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Rev. DeForest B. Soaries Jr.

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Filed under: Black in America • History • Pop culture • Religion • What we think
soundoff (110 Responses)
  1. Judy

    Whitney certainly left an impressive legacy for the world..Not only was she "gifted" with the amazing voice of this generation; she is certainly symbolic of what money " can buy" & how fame can lead to "selecting" paths of destruction.

    It still rings in my ears of when Celine Dion called into GMA & when she began blaming the "industry" for what is "clearly" individual choice of mind numbing drugs & alchohol.

    When Whitney's ex bodyguard remarked that she was NEVER allowed to be along in a bathroom longer than 10 minutes...it made me shake my head.

    Addiction....is just that....addiction....the Hollywood peers & pressures has NOTHING to do with the addiction. She made choices...unfortunate choices that in all probability led to her early death.

    Rest in Peace..Whitney...you were certainly...ONE OF A KIND....

    February 21, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Darleen

    For us who did not know her personally, knew her. My heart breaks for Whitney's family. May the Lord keep you near his heart to ease your pain.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jon

    what a beautiful voice always in my head always rememberd in my heart forever rest in peace sing with other stars in the heavens all my love to the family .

    February 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jacqueline perry

    loved the services,bobby should have been allowed to say something,we need more love in this country,he could have been shown more love,someone should have stepped in and said,lets make room for them,its what whitney would have wanted.she admitted to loving him openly,she loved hatd and didnt hide it.she wanted love back,as hard as she gave it,and it hurt her when she could not get it back,and it lead to her abuse of drugs that got out of control.if he really loved her ,he should have stopped everything,to see that his wife was getting the help she needed ,and she needed to know he was supporting her,if it was sincere she would have toned it down.....i will always love whitney houston

    February 19, 2012 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
  5. michael marañon

    Until now I'm still in disbelief that she's dead, I can not accept that my idol and my favorite singer of all time is dead. Every time I hear her songs being played on the radio stations or music videos on MTV I'm in tears. I wish I could have a chance to meet her in person when she's still alive, 'cause I want to give some advise to her on how to solve her problems on drugs and her love life, and I would tell her that How much I love her, in fact I played her music videos in my computer almost every day since I acquired my computer in 2008, here voice is like an energizer to me, it makes me feels good when I hear her voice. Whitney is such my great inspiration. This is all true.
    I LOVE YOU WHITNEY...I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU.....I'm sure we will meet up there someday, and tell you how much I Love you. Rest in peace with our LORD WHITNEY....

    February 18, 2012 at 5:44 am | Report abuse |
  6. Janathan Wooley

    We were all hoping Whitney would get the fairy tale happy ending we all deserve.

    February 17, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |

    "And the peace of God which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds throuh Christn Jesus" – PHILIPPIANS 4:7. Sissy & Bobby Christina take comfort in the fact that Jesus Loved and loves your loved one always. He is comforting her and attendin to her. Jesus also is grieving with you. You are not travelling through this valley alone. Take comfort that He is the one who is carrying you now and there are only one set of foot prints on the sand. God bless you.

    February 17, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Pastor Joe

    Pastor, did she ever talk to you about her problems?

    February 17, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
  9. mark trought

    The adults around her betrayed her most. If she was my friend she would have had two choice come off drugs or not be my friend. There are other ways to deal with stress exercise, eat right, sing(she was the best at that)

    February 17, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  10. Anne

    So sad..she loved the Lord and is with Him now.

    I just watched the interview of Oprah/Whitney. I was in an abusive relationship and was on many of the drugs Whitney was prescribed and was found near her when she died. I also was with a man who emotionally abused me for 6 years. It nearly killed me more than once. I know what that's like. I am treated like a princess now by a true gift from the Lord. I haven't seen the abusive man in about 5 years. Though, I did think lately of contacting him after seeing him in a public place recently. He was a drug to me...and old feelings came back...I know how Whitney felt to have such a hard time letting go of that. After seeing this interview..and hearing of what happened to Whitney..I will not be contacting this man ever again. I don't want to die and surely I would if I ever went back. I would be abused, feel fear and go back on whatever prescription drug. I even ODd on some of those because I was abused so badly, I didn't want to live any more. What is sad, is that Whitney was a believer in Jesus like me...and I know, how I know that the enemy wants to trap us into things that will destroy us. So sad that she was tempted to go back to that lifestyle and she did. God is greater, Whitney..and God is greater than our hearts...and I know you are with Him and feeling that Joy, Peace and Love that will never let you go. You are His princess forever..and were a princess here to us. I used to think I was garbage..now I know I am a princess that is loved by the Lord. I won't go back Whitney..know that you were used here to help someone else. Much joy to you forever..

    from one princess to another. xoxo.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:57 am | Report abuse |
  11. Joi Gibson

    I am listening to "I Will Always Love You" right now. What an incredible voice!!!!! I'm not one for crying over celebrity deaths, but for some reason this got next to me. It is just really sad. The woman was remarkably talented – her voice was astounding.

    May she find peace elsewhere which she could not seem to find here.

    February 16, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. YVONNE

    Loved Whitney and her voice but for the demon of drugs that has waisted such a talent and beauty. May God protect us and other raw upcoming talents from such evil. May her soul rest in peace.

    February 16, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ginnyanne

    Her voice was the most beautiful I have ever heard No one will ever sing like that again(so don't even try!) She was one of a kind We all have different gifts. Her music helped me through some of my most difficult times and also through some very happy ones as well.

    February 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Peggy

    Whitney had the most beautiful voice i had ever heard i feel so sorry for her family especially her Mother and Daughter she left this world with some awsome music to enjoy!
    Thank you Whitney RIP

    February 16, 2012 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  15. vee

    she only didn't have a beautifull voice but she was beautifull in appearance. i wish this celebraties could just learn from each other, that drugs is not good and usually covers all the good works u've been doing.well if this how the world of fame is then i don't envy it at all cos our surpose celebraties are dying out of toxication. and we teenagers are making them our idols!

    February 16, 2012 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
  16. ediva75

    Reblogged this on EDiva's POV.

    February 15, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  17. spent

    We all have our demons.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
  18. Renee

    "Despite the fact that Whitney attended a prestigious Catholic High School, genuinely cared about the disadvantaged and had an angelic voice, she was no angel. But none of us are angels nor do we know an angel. And since she did not have the luxury of dancing with her demons in private, as most of us do, her un-angelic traits are all too familiar. It would be a real tragedy to allow her flaws to become her legacy."

    February 15, 2012 at 7:12 am | Report abuse |
  19. Emmanuel

    May te gud Lord be with her.wena bobby brown u ar nonsense

    February 15, 2012 at 6:08 am | Report abuse |
    • HUH?

      Couldn't have saied it beter myselv !

      February 17, 2012 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
  20. M D Monroe

    My Dear Ms. Houston, Bobbi Christina, Family Members and New Hope Baptist Church Family,

    My heart is full and I am grieving with you. As a former NHBC member, now relocated to AZ, but whenever I came home...I attended church and I ALWAYS asked about how 'our girl' is doing. My prayer for all of us is to have long memories and brief grief but, rejoice that we were allowed to know the 'sweetest and most precious voice' the world will ever know- Goodbye Whitney, the world will never forget you as your voice will ring forever in our hearts.

    February 14, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  21. free2say

    I'll start by saying that I loved Whitney's music. But don't we hear over and over not to let a certain "flaw" be the legacy of these superstars. We heard the same thing about MJ: don't remember that he was a child molester. Don't think of Whitney as a partying drug abuser. We need to take a hard look at the people we are idolizing and how they live their lives: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jackson, and yes, dear Whitney. These are not people I'd want my children using as models and maybe if people cared enough to stop supporting these people when they act like idiots, we could get them the help they need so they don't die!!! To me Whitney's death is just a huge waste of what should have been a beautiful person with a life long career.

    February 14, 2012 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      I don't think MJ was ever accused of child molestation.

      February 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
      • justme

        He was prosecuted for child molestation. Did you not see the court proceedings that lasted for about a year?

        February 15, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
      • mfree

        Yes, he was prosecuted for child molestation and was also found innocent.

        February 16, 2012 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
      • jeff

        @Tony, Where have you been living, under a rock?

        February 16, 2012 at 5:06 am | Report abuse |
      • kim

        He was not found inncent – he was found not guilty and yes there is a very big difference.

        February 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • dean

        Money talks and like all people with money it buys freedom from ugly things.

        February 16, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
      • MsGeorgia826

        And what rock are you under? He was accused and prosecuted for child molestation. He was just fortunate enough to have a team of lawyers and bought a not guilty verdict. I always felt that even though he did not do any jaill time, he was in his own mental prison for his indescretions which is why he had to pay a doctor large amounts of money to get some sleep. When you have done so much wrong in your life, how could you sleep? I have to agree....these people are good for entertainment but these are not people that I would want my children to model after...including Whitney. I loved her music but her life was something to be desired. There are people in the business who do it right. Stardom and drug use should not go hand in hand!

        February 19, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
  22. JUNJUN

    SHE GOT CAUGHT UP IN A LIFESTYLE that was a little bit too fast for her, but that doesn't mean we, as fellow human beings can point the finger at her. She was able to reach out to people in whatever way she was allowed to while she was at the peak of her limelight success. It didn't matter if people didnt believe in what she was doing, as long as she believed in herself and made GOOD things happen as a result. GOD LOVED HER FOR WHO SHE WAS and SO SHOULD WE. We have no right to cast a shadow on her glow or her shine.

    February 14, 2012 at 3:56 am | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      A LITTLE bit too fast for her. Well she's dead so I'd say yep, maybe a LITTLE too fast...

      February 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  23. John

    If it had been a "rock star", all of the haters would have said they deserved it. Since it is Whitney, as in MJ's death, we have to walk on eggshells? B-S! Call it what it is. Cr@ck kills....

    February 14, 2012 at 3:06 am | Report abuse |
  24. Curt

    Legalize Marijuana retarded fools.

    February 14, 2012 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Stop using the r-word, worthless stoner!

      February 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Undivided Heart

    Lesson: Use the talents that God gave you to honor God. If singing is your gift use it to bring glory to God not yourself. Don't use church as just a stepping stone to lay up for yourself treasure and fame on earth. Have an undivided heart. With that said, let us pray to God that her daughter Bobbi Kristina will grow stronger from this tragedy and not go down the same or another slippery slope.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • telling it as it is


      February 17, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  26. Mike

    So sad for her death, but im just curious about folks that started well from church or singing gospel music that probably fine tune into secular world then make their ends complicated,may be im wrong though,im just curious Prov 6:27 said "you cannot hold fire in your bossom without you getting burn". RIP Whitney !

    February 14, 2012 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Undivided Heart

      Many people go to church weekend after weekend and are not grounded in their beliefs. The Bible says friendship with the world is enmity with God. What that means is that those who sing, pray, preach and take part in the Church are supposed to live a life focused on God not on themselves and their own selfish pleasures. But unfortunately many who go by the name Christian want the same things as everyone else – self-glorification and material success. Then while still talking about God they find themselves being sucked in by the culture around them and can't get out because their faith wasn't that strong to begin with. Singing to God is like praying to God, why would you want to make a living out of singing about things that don't lead anyone to the Savior you claim to believe in and love, especially when Jesus Christ's command was to go and preach the Gospel to all the world not to have the whole world make a big deal over you and make you rich.

      February 14, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
      • Undivided Heart

        To clarify what was just said – the good news is that even if they aren't grounded in Christ beforehand if they see their situation in the middle of their trouble they can still overcome through faith in Him – it's not impossible. Sadly, this isn't always the case and ends in tragedy. Know your values and what you're getting yourself into instead of trying to dig yourself out afterward.

        February 14, 2012 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
      • Undivided Heart

        We are all sinners who make mistakes and should remember that when commenting on the failures of others. However, we should try to use the wisdom that GOD gives us through HIS Word by the Holy Spirit to not fall into the traps of the devil and when we see others – both celebrities and those in our personal lives – who have fallen prey to him then we should learn from their mistakes. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Bible, Romans chapter 3:verses 23-24). "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Bible, Romans chapter 6:verse 23).

        February 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Trueview

    She treated her beautiful gift like a used tampon. Too bad her gift didn't go to someone with a little more class. Instead it went to a Bobby Brown loving crack head. Yea her life was real tuff. Reallll hard getting paid millions while having your butt kissed. You know you have a problem when you can't swim in a bathtub. Houston we have a problem. Her voice was shot anyway, all we were left with is a drunk crack head that needed swimming lessons. But if you want to worship her go ahead. Lets see who the real fool is.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Music industry insider

      You have no idea what you are talking about. She blessed us with her music, and the world did nothing but judge her in her darkest hour. I work with artists who are very lonely and depressed, and they weren't that way before fame came their way. It does weird things to good people. You have no idea what kind of life you would live if you were in her shoes, so stop judging.

      February 14, 2012 at 3:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Susan

      She was not given a gift, she was given a job and the resources with which to accomplish that job. Someday a song will touch your soul, you will understand your words, then you will understand the likes of Whitney.

      February 16, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • michael marañon

      Stop judging Whitney man...we had our own demons in ourselves, we are all humans that has its own weaknesses, her music legacy that gave the inspiration to millions of people around the world will surely encompass all her failings. She will always be remembered as a great singer and a very kind person as well. How about you man?Do you have a great legacy
      to the world when you're dead?Shame on you...

      February 18, 2012 at 6:01 am | Report abuse |
  28. Jamie

    This is the most elegant, beautiful and honest opinion piece I've read in a while. Thank you Reverend Soaries for sharing your personal memories of Whitney with us and for putting things in perspective. It is true that she had her flaws – we all do – but my sense of her was that she was an inherently good person. For many of us, her legacy will be the timeless, soul-stirring music she created in that inimitable angelic voice of hers, and her beautiful daughter, Bobby Cristina.

    February 13, 2012 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Missy

    I am just baffled by how some people can be so cruel and mean about Whitney's death. Though she may have been THE VOICE considered a national treasure, she was also a mother, daughter, niece, friend, etc. and I am sure those closest to her are grieving immensely. I myself have been crying off and on as I have viewed internet and TV footage about her and it hurts to know that her life is gone REGARDLESS of how she died. People, please show some respect not only for Whitney the star but for the person as well.

    February 13, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Ossie

    Ok she had her demons like we all do. But from a mans point of view she was there, she nailed every song, she was at my graduation, my wedding, my anniversaries, many major events in my life and part all of us lives for years. Not just for music but for life. This sister was there for us, she was there. She was like a sister to me I for one will miss her

    February 13, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  31. d nm

    vasodilation may have caused witney to pass on warm water increases medication 5 to 10 times bath hot tub ect sorry about misprint earlier hope her daughter is ok take care of her

    February 13, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  32. DaShawn WIlliams

    The Whitney I nu, did CR@cK better than anyone else o n my block. the sista took care of all us poor folks. thats why she didnt do c0ke . she wantd to save some dough. to spend it on us less fortunates

    February 13, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
  33. Tanya

    The I wanna dance with somebody video is how i will remember this American treasure. She was so playful and so full of life. What a smile, what charm . In her life I know she had people molding her to be something she was not. People pulling her places she did not want to go. Expectations she did not really want to meet. We all have this in life. But now , but now she is going back home . Sweet Nippy – we love . we love in New Jersey ,and are so honored that you were from here and are headed back home as I write this . We love you !!!!!!

    February 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  34. Tracy

    This is a beuatiful piece. When someone dies, famous or not , i always feel a sad for those that knew them intimately. what must he be like for her older brothers in this moment remebering their little sister running around the house , her mom remembering the day she took her home form the hospital , her daughter remembering those intimate mother/daughter conversations, her friends – the people who were really her friends and the times she shared with them. that is sad. But the incomparable MS Houston made her mark and reached the mountaintop of success. she had her pains and her struggles but thats all over now . They can;t hurt you now Baby . You knew the lord and he will keep you safe .

    February 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  35. d nm

    basodialation probalyyook witneys life ask dr gupta that that why hasnt anybody brought that up

    February 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  36. Laurie

    Because ALL of us have sinned, please stop throwing rocks at this woman; she is dead. Remember that her mother, daughter and the rest of her family are grieving and they do not need to hear all of this negativity surrounding their love one. " Do onto others as you would want them to do onto you". Imagine if this was your family member. PLEASE JUST STOP AND LET HER REST. After almost 30 years of the media scutinizing her every move, she deserves that much.

    February 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  37. mike howell

    Whitney is not dead................................................she's waiting to EXHALE!

    February 13, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
  38. Anne Maxson

    so sad, wish she stayed in the church choir, at least she would still be alive. so missed. i have been crying off and on all week end, rest in peace sweetheart.

    February 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  39. Peggy

    Her voice was almost other worldly in its beauty. And isn't it often the kindest who struggle the hardest in life?
    We can only remember her gifts and look past the wounds. . .she deserves it.

    February 13, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      She had a beautiful gift.

      February 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  40. Paul

    She will be missed. Addiction is a very hard thing to overcome. I am grieving with you!

    February 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • al


      February 13, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |