Opinion: The Whitney Houston I knew

Rev. DeForest Soaries says teen Whitney Houston, shown with her mom Cissy, turned choir rehearsal into a "praisefest."

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.