The Rev. Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the greeting on the same stage where Jackson had been rehearsing for a concert series in the days before his June 25 death at age 50. Then Mariah Carey sang the opening performance with a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad "I'll Be There," a duet with Trey Lorenz.
"We come together and we remember the time," said Smith, riffing on one of Jackson's lyrics. "As long as we remember him, he will always be there to comfort us."
Millions of fans around the world gathered at odd hours to watch the ceremony, which was broadcast by the major TV networks and cable channels from Tokyo to Paris to New York and streamed everywhere online in one of the biggest celebrity send-offs ever seen.
Among those who saluted Jackson were Motown music mogul Berry Gordy Jr., Brooke Shields, the Rev. Al Sharpton and basketball greats Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. Jennifer Hudson sang Jackson's hit "Will You Be There" and John Mayer played guitar on a whisper-light rendition of "Human Nature."
"This is a moment that I wished I didn't live to see," Stevie Wonder said before his performance. Usher broke down in tears after singing "Gone Too Soon."
Although the event was billed as a celebration, some speakers took the occasion to come to the defense of Jackson, whose life was marked as much by criticism and scorn as scintillating talent.
Gordy said that despite what he called "some sad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part," the title King of Pop wasn't good enough for Jackson. "I think he is simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived," Gordy said.
Emotions rose when Sharpton delivered a fiery eulogy highlighting all the barriers Jackson broke and the troubles he faced. "Every time he got knocked down, he got back up," Sharpton said, and the applauding crowd jumped to its feet.
Sharpton rode the moment, building to a crescendo. "There wasn't nothing strange about your daddy," he said later, addressing Jackson's three children in the front row. "It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!" After he left the stage, chants of "Mi-chael! Mi-chael!" filled the arena.
The ceremony wrapped up with group performances of "We Are the World" and "Heal the World" sung by Lionel Richie, Hudson and Jackson family members - including his children - before a backdrop of symbols of religions from around the world. They were joined onstage by children in white and several other people who had participated in the ceremony. Then members of Jackson's family took the stage to thank the crowd and share their own thoughts, barely able to hide their emotion as they hugged in the ceremony's final moments.
An estimated 20,000 people were in the Staples Center as Jackson's flower-draped casket was brought to the venue in a motorcade under law enforcement escort. Those who gathered constituted a visual representation of Jackson's life: black, white and everything in between, wearing fedoras and African headdresses, sequins and surgical masks.
Fans with a ticket wore gold wristbands and picked up a metallic gold program guide on their way in. Acting as pallbearers, Jackson's brothers each wore a gold necktie and, in a touch borrowed from their brother, a single spangly white glove and sunglasses.
Brother Jermaine Jackson took the stage and sang the standard "Smile" as he fought back tears.
Jackson's hearse had been part of a motorcade that smoothly whisked his body 10 miles across closed freeways from a private service at a Hollywood Hills cemetery to his public memorial and awaiting fans.
The traffic snarls and logistical nightmares that had been feared by police and city officials did not materialize. Traffic was actually considered by police to be lighter than normal.
"I think people got the message to stay home," said California Highway Patrol Officer Miguel Luevano.