DETROIT – Congregants celebrated the life of Aretha Franklin at her father’s Baptist church in Detroit at the first Sunday service since her death, with her powerful voice again ringing out within its walls in tribute to her spectacular career.
Civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, now frail himself, was given a standing ovation after stepping up to the microphone to eulogize his old friend, the “Queen of Soul.”
The New Bethel Baptist Church — located in a down-at-heel, quiet neighborhood of Detroit — has been the focus of tributes to Franklin, who passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer on Thursday at age 76.
“It’s a happy day and a sad day,” Pastor Robert Smith Jr. said at the start of the service.
“We are sad that Aretha has gone,” he said. “We’re happy that she’s free from the shackles of time.”
The high-energy service opened with an impassioned dance performance from a girl in a red skirt to a recording of Franklin singing “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” — the same gospel song she delivered at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.
Franklin recorded the album “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” at the church, where she also served dinners to worshippers and the homeless at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Ralph Godbee, a former Detroit police chief turned pastor, led the congregation in a rousing hand clap for Franklin.
Godbee recalled how she had once telephoned him to complain about a relative who had been mistreated by the police department, telling him that no one — regardless of their family — should be treated in such a way.
“There’s something about when the queen calls,” he said. “I’ve never been as excited in my life to be cursed out by somebody.”
Godbee hailed her as a “freedom fighter” and credited her with the revival of the Motor City — the home of the U.S. auto industry that has turned a corner after years of economic depression and high crime.
Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, was a prominent Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, who in June 1963 helped King organize the Walk to Freedom through downtown Detroit, only two months before King’s historic March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech.
Outside the imposing, pale brick church, mourners have hung helium balloons reading “You’re special,” bouquets of flowers, teddy bears and hand-written tributes to her legendary singing.
“Aretha Will Always be My Queen. Nothing But Respect!!” read one home-made poster adored with cut-out, black-and-white newspaper pictures of the musical icon in her prime.
“Aretha, thank you for making this city, this country, and this world a better place. Your music makes me feel full of light,” said one message signed “love Anna.”
“You will always be in my heart,” said another. “Your voice will always ring in my heart and soul. I hear it all of the time, soothing me.”