The liturgy of Tuesday’s homegoing service for George Floyd reflected the Christian landscape of his hometown and the rich legacy of gospel music in the black church.
More than 500 loved ones, community leaders, and guests gathered at a Houston megachurch, Fountain of Praise, to remember a man whose death launched a movement.
The lineup for the service, the final memorial before Floyd’s burial that afternoon, included leaders of some of the most influential black megachurches in Houston as well as remarks from national figures like Joe Biden (by video) and Al Sharpton, who gave the eulogy.
Gospel greats Kim Burrell and Kurt Carr and R&B artist Ne-Yo were among the performers whose music carried mourners through the nearly four-hour event.
Thousands watched the funeral livestreamed online from Fountains of Praise’s sanctuary, where about 6,000 people came through during a public viewing the day before. The congregation is one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the state. Pastors Remus and Mia Wright know Floyd’s cousin and reached out to his family to host the funeral. They opened the service by reading the opening lines from several psalms—121, 91, 34, 46, and 24—emphasizing God’s help and presence in times of trouble.
The crowd, many dressed in white, stood and swayed as the 10-person Houston Ensemble sang from the choir loft, where they were spread out for social distancing.
The service began with Andrae Crouch’s “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power”: It soothes my doubts and calms my fears and it dries all my tears / The blood that gives me strength from day to day, it will never lose its power.
“The music is very important in both mediating the grief and also leading people into the notion of celebration,” said Tammy L. Kernodle, a musicologist at Miami University of Ohio and president of the Society for American Music. “There’s an arc that takes place emotionally but there’s also an arc that takes place musically.”
Remus Wright referred to the service as a celebration of life. It was also a celebration of the change they see stemming from Floyd’s legacy.
As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked: Who would have thought that the name of a man who grew up in the city’s Third Ward, “the Tre,” would now be mentioned around the world? “But what folks meant for evil, God has turned it out for good,” he said (alluding to Gen. 50:20).
After the more traditional hymns, the service included a Sam Cooke protest song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” playing while a local artist painted Floyd’s portrait; Kirk Franklin’s “My World Needs You,” accompanying a video montage; and Ne-Yo singing a tearful a cappella version of “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye.”
“They gave us a glimpse of the full soundscape of gospel history,” said Kernodle, an expert in African American music. “That’s not just for [Floyd’s] family. That’s also for those who are listening on a larger plane. That’s also a message to America. … No matter where you are generationally, no matter where you are denominationally within black Christendom, there was something that was offered that you could relate to, that you knew.”
Bob Darden, gospel music scholar at Baylor University, described the music as “a really well thought-out and powerful mix” that was “at times just mesmerizing.” He noted the straight-ahead praise and worship of Nakitta Foxx’s “We Offer Praise” and the long, emotional draw of Michael Tolds singing “My Soul’s Been Anchored.”
Fellow African American pastors from Houston spoke at the service, including Bill Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist, Ralph Douglas West of The Church Without Walls, and Gusta Booker of Greater St. Matthews Baptist.
Their messages too were filled with biblical calls for justice as well as familiar lyrics from more hymns and gospel songs. Remus Wright referenced “in times like these we need a Savior.” West quoted a full stanza of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By”:
Trials dark on every hand,
And we cannot understand
All the ways of God would lead us
To that blessed promised land;
But he guides us with his eye,
And we'll follow till we die,
For we'll understand it better by and by
Quoting familiar songs evokes a generational connection to the black church tradition. “It’s almost a type of blood memory that’s taking place in the music,” Kernodle said. “Those lyrics also are trigger points that take us back to the memories of how we’ve overcome in America at these different points. It really speaks to how there’s such a strong marriage between what’s actually being sung and what’s been preached.”
Giving tributes alongside Floyd’s family, Cyril White, who leads the ministry To God Be the Glory Sports, was able to share personal reflections from when he played exhibition basketball alongside Floyd in the ’90s.
He described how they’d pass around the Proverbs to read a verse or two at a time. He read 6:9-11 in his memory: “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.” He said Floyd’s death had woken them up. His ministry plans to open a sports center in Floyd’s name on a three-acre property in the Houston area.
One white pastor, Steve Wells of South Main Baptist Church, also gave remarks commemorating the courage and witness of Floyd’s family and community. The mostly African American crowd applauded when he quoted 1 John 4: “If anyone loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar.”
“You could have said, ‘We don’t need to hear from any white people today. You have been silent long enough. You can be silent today.’ But you invited the whole community together,” he told the mourners.
Biden—who spoke by video—was the only other white speaker. He also quoted Scripture and songs, asking, “Why does justice not roll like a river or righteousness like a mighty stream?” (Amos 5:24), and quoting lyrics referencing Psalm 91: “He will raise you up on eagles’ wings / Bear you on the breath of dawn / Make you to shine like the sun / And hold you in the palm of His hand.”
Sharpton’s eulogy chronicled Floyd’s importance in moving forward the push for racial justice. He evoked Matthew 21:42 and said, “God took an ordinary brother, from the Third Ward, from the housing projects—the stone that the builder had rejected … and made him the cornerstone of a movement.”