NEWARK, New Jersey (CNN) — As the sun rose the morning after Whitney Houston’s death, congregants at the Baptist church where she began her singing career as a member of the junior gospel choir to mourn, pray and share stories of the pop superstar.
The Houston family has been “inseparable” from New Hope Baptist Church, Pastor Joe A. Carter said in an interview Saturday night, and Whitney would continue to visit throughout her life.
Carter led the congregation in a prayer service for Whitney Houston on Sunday morning, “petitioning the Lord on behalf of Whitney’s daughter, her mother, and the entire Houston Family,” according to a statement on the church’s website.
Houston, 48, was found dead Saturday by her bodyguard at a Beverly Hills, California, hotel.
Whitney Houston’s mom, Cissy Houston — herself a renowned gospel singer — was director of sacred music at the church for 54 years and is still a member there.
Asked whether he had spoken to Cissy Houston, Carter said Sunday he had, and “she needs our prayers and support.”
“Whitney was a mother, a daughter, a sister, and that’s the focus that we want to keep in front of everyone today, to continue to lift the family up and respect this time of grief.”
Those arriving for the service Sunday were quiet and somber. Reporters were not allowed inside.
Whitney was born in Newark in 1963 and was soloing in the junior choir by age 11, according to the All Music Guide. “Whitney’s mother and cousins nurtured her passion for gospel music since birth,” according to Houston’s official website. Her cousins include singers Dee Dee Warwick and Dionne Warwick, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin.
As a teenager, Houston would accompany her mother in concert.
A video posted on the Internet sharing site YouTube shows a young Houston singing the lead on the gospel song, “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” at the church.
The church’s history is “deeply associated with the power of Whitney’s voice and the influence that she’s had, not only in this church but across the world,” Carter said. “We’re saddened at this loss.”
New Hope Baptist began operating in a Newark home in 1903, originally led by a preacher from North Carolina.
“As the world mourns the loss of one of the all-time greats, we in Newark feel an especially deep sadness,” Newark Mayor Corey Booker said in a statement Saturday night. “She went from a Newark church to the global stage, but she always remained a deep part of our pride and collective heart.”
“This church, the church that Whitney grew up in, is calling for prayer for her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, her mother … and the entire Houston family and Whitney’s fans,” Carter said, appealing for privacy on behalf of the church and Houston’s family.
(CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Deb Feyerick and Dan Gilgoff contributed to this report.)