*Recorded in Los Angeles on December 11, the eleventh installment of BET’s Celebration of Gospel felt like a welcome home concert for legendary R&B acts, as once wayward singers found sanctuary on the Orpheum Theatre stage.

Themed “Keeping the Faith” the two-hour special was hosted by actor/comedian Steve Harvey. The show unites gospel and R&B talent for an all-out celebration of the music that has shaped Black Music as a whole–the music of the church. By the end of the evening, however R&B tole the show.

Representing the R&B side there were performances by El DeBarge, Chaka Khan, Howard Hewitt, Chante Moore, Kelly Price and a surprise performance by Whitney Houston. Without a doubt, DeBarge, Chaka and Houston were the stand out acts of the spirit-filled night.

Joining in with Chaka, many swaying and waving their hands with their eyes closed — feeling it — attendees sang: “You touch me and something in me knows. . .right down to the wire. Even through the fire. . .” And even though the classic ballad “Through the Fire” was not “gospelized” everyone in ear shot of Chaka’s voice knew this version was about her relationship with God.

When the band broke it down the multi-Grammy- award-winning diva reflected on her past (known to have been scorched by drug addiction), which she said was defined by hard partying until she finally heeded her mother’s advice to get on her knees and pray. Punctuating what has been a remarkable comeback year, gentle-toned crooner El DeBarge, sang beautifully his hit song “Second Chance.” Howard Hewitt joined him on stage completing the appearance with his classic “Say Amen,” again transforming the audience into a big choir. Bowing his head, as Hewitt hugged him, Debarge who spent two years in prison for drug possession, appeared to be humbled and overwhelmed by the torrent of acceptance.

But then came the most jaw-dropping, must see performance of them all.

As if being mesmerized by Kim Burrell’s sanctified syncopation wasn’t enough, Whitney Houston emerged to join her friend in a duet of Houston’s song “I Look to You.” In sheer amazement, the crowd erupted with praise at the sight of Houston. Earlier last year, Houston reportedly canceled several tour dates due to an alleged drug use relapse and vocal troubles. Houston, who in 1996 recorded the “Preachers Wife” soundtrack and starred in the movie was vocally vibrant, holding the long notes the way she did in her prime.

These artists’ “to-hell-and-back” testimonies are no secret. Their stories are all woven together in the urban entertainment lexicon by the thread of drug abuse and redemption. Transparency truly worked to their advantage as fans readily embraced their passion-filled lyrical testimonies that were cloaked in the inspiring R&B songs they sang.

That night I witnessed the maturation and progression of a show. COG wasn’t so much about gospel music, but The Gospel itself and its ability to transform lives.

While R&B took the spotlight, the gospel performances were also par excellent.

Both Mary Mary and Kirk Frankin, COG veterans, premiered songs from their respective forthcoming albums. The rousing presentation in remembrance of late gospel greats Bishop Walter Hawkins and Albertina Walker (with performances by Smokie Norful, Byron Cage and Kathy Taylor) was a treat. Another blazing performance came from the female quartet made up of Sunday Best alums Y’Anna Crawley, Jessica Reedy and Leandria Johnson along with R& B songstresses Chante Moore and Kelly Price. A bevy of new comers including Beverly Crawford, Ernest Pugh, VaShawn Mitchell (accompanied on acoustic guitar by Israel Houghton), and Jonathan Nelson and Purpose also contributed to an unforgettable night.

By allowing R&B artists to shine in their element and widening the breadth of participating gospel talent, this year COG made a glorious transition to its sweet spot.

Celebration of Gospel aired on BET Sunday, January 30. Look out for repeat airings in the coming weeks or view it online anytime HERE: