Those Baptists sure know how to throw a fine funeral! Along with millions of others around the world, I watched Whitney Houston’s service at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark last weekend on CNN. Expecting to catch an hour or so, I found myself transfixed, and four hours flew by in a flash.
“We’re taking you to church,” one of the many reverends said early on, and indeed they did, for a blend of music, eulogies and preaching that was surprisingly uplifting and even joyful. It brought back memories of the funeral I attended at a black Baptist church in Poughkeepsie in the 1980’s, still the most inspiring I’ve ever attended. Like Whitney’s, it was a blend of sadness and exaltation, rocked by a marvelous choir. The program called it a “Coming Home Celebration.”
The service was for Sherwood Thompson, the Chief Recreation Therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center, where I worked as an art therapist, or as New York civil service chose to call it, a “Recreation Therapist (Art).” The hospital is closed now, but back then it had a flourishing creative arts therapies department that included dance and music therapists. Thompson was a former college football player with a B.A., and with our master’s degrees and our lofty artistic proclivities, we never stopped hassling him, proclaiming that we shouldn’t be supervised by a jock and agitating for our own department. Fresh from two decades as a freewheeling artist in Manhattan’s SoHo district, I had absolutely no sense of organizational teamwork or decorum, and fired off frequent inflammatory memos of complaint to the hospital director.
Amazingly, Thompson never fired me. Instead, he was unfailingly gracious, saying that for staff, he’d rather have “racehorses I need to rein in rather than mules I have to kick in the behind.” Eventually we reached a truce of sorts, and when he died from complications of diabetes, a dance therapist and I attended his service. We were among a couple of dozen whites in a church packed with hundreds of black people, and we sobbed uncontrollably. The magnificent choir and stirring rhetoric fueled and stoked our emotions, and it was a cathartic experience even though we didn’t buy into all the Jesus and God talk.
So it was at the Whitney Houston memorial service. The passion poured loud and clear through my small-screen TV into my living room, and the choir and gospel singing were transcendent, even though I couldn’t buy into the notion that Whitney is now singing amidst a choir of heavenly angels.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m a little envious of those whose faith gives them such a firm foundation for coping with loss and grief, not to mention the expectation of a blissful life after death. I envision our denomination as being like a gigantic whole wheat donut or bagel – full of bran, raisins, fiber and lots of other wholesome and nourishing ingredients. But smack dab in the middle, where there should be spiritual inspiration, there’s nothing but a hole.
Nonetheless, FUUSA, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, has a choir, and last fall I joined it. Although I’m a lifelong music lover and play jazz and pop piano, never in my life had I sung in a choir before, perhaps because I’ve always been more of a rugged individualist. But joining a choir was an inexpensive item on my bucket list, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a greater challenge than I expected – I sing alto, which is a lot like second fiddle. My sight reading’s rusty, and the melodic lines can be subtle and surprisingly tricky, but the choir director says I’m doing “more than okay,” which is praise enough, so I’m hanging in there.
I haven’t yet experienced the state of transcendent togetherness so evident in good Baptist choirs, but there’s always hope. Matt Edwards, our choir director, grew up in New Orleans, and under his tutelage our lily-white choir has finally learned to clap on the after beat. Once in a while, though it’s generally frowned on in UU circles, we even sing about heaven and Jesus.