In April 2018, 900 people turned out for a midweek evening church service that typically draws 50 participants at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Days later, a YouTube video of the proceedings went viral, followed by invitations clamoring for the event to be reprised in cities from Los Angeles to Lisbon.
The impetus for this groundswell of interest? A phenomenon known as the Beyoncé Mass, a Christian worship service inspired by the life and music of its namesake, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
The brainchild of the Rev. Yolanda Norton, a Hebrew Bible scholar and the H. Eugene Farlough Chair of Black Church Studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary, the Beyoncé Mass explores how race and gender affect the lives, voices and bodies of black women. It made its New York debut last week at a pair of churches with strong black leadership: First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn and St. James Presbyterian in Harlem.
“The Mass says to young black girls, ‘You are part of what God had in mind when, during creation, God said, ‘It is good,’” Norton explained over lunch in Hell’s Kitchen last month. “By making the stories and realities of young black women and girls central components of this liturgical art, we’re affirming their realities in a world that is persistent and dogged in its attempts to reject them.”
Those who have attended the Mass say it left them with a great sense of well-being. “I haven’t been involved in the church for years, but stepping back into that space felt amazing,” said Lydia Middleton, dean of Black Student Affairs at the Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles, who attended the Mass held in Southern California on Martin Luther King Day. “It felt warm and inviting, and I left feeling healing. By the end of the service, people were weeping, people were joyous, people were hugging each other.”
The Mass, which features black female singers, dancers and officiants, is a complete church service with a sermon, scripture readings and the Lord’s Supper. It is not, however, about worshipping Beyoncé.
“Absolutely not, and I’m a card-carrying member of the BeyHive,” Norton said, referring to the singer’s vast international fan base. Instead, the Mass uses the singer’s story and songs, from “Formation” to “Flaws and All,” to reframe the narratives and struggles of black women through the lens of the Christian Gospels and their message of radical hospitality and inclusion.
“Black artists have always been central to the struggle for black freedom, whether we’re talking about Nina Simone or Harry Belafonte or Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock,” said the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, where Norton is currently a scholar in residence. “Beyoncé is a part of this legacy. There is this natural correspondence between the kinds of things she does in her music and the black church.”
Douglas cited the song “Freedom” as an example. “Here you have Beyoncé calling you to be free, to find your freedom, to be yourself, and that’s what black girls see her doing,” she said, talking about the singer’s performance of the song in Homecoming, the Netflix documentary about her headlining appearance at the Coachella Festival in 2018.
“In the video, Beyoncé includes not just one black female body,” Douglas continued. “She has all kinds of black female bodies. There’s no body-shaming. There’s no colorism. That’s very inspiring to a young black girl.”
Douglas and Norton locate the Beyoncé Mass within the tradition of womanly thought and practice as articulated by the writer Alice Walker in her 1983 collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.
Distinct from feminism, which historically has centered on the experience of white women, “Womanism privileges the intellectual and intimate space of black women,” Norton said. “It has to do with black women’s need to participate in communities that are bigger than their own for the thriving of all humanity.”
For Norton, 37, having Beyoncé serve as the inspiration for the Mass — the singer has yet to comment publicly about the event — was a personal choice as well as a scholarly one. “As her life evolves, my life evolves,” she said. “I can hear Beyoncé songs, or Destiny’s Child songs, and know what stage of life I was in.”
The Mass’ specific messages for black women and girls notwithstanding, it welcomes anyone who has been excluded by the church.
Andy Deeb, 27, a former student of Norton’s who identifies as transgender and is white, has played bass guitar in all but one of the Masses to date. “The message I hear coming from the service is one that makes room for everybody,” he said. “As a transgender person, church has not been somewhere that’s been safe or welcoming for me.”
Deeb was also enrolled in the first installment of “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible,” the class taught by Norton that gave birth to the Mass, in which students were given the assignment “to use the music of Beyoncé to construct a transformative worship experience.”
Beyoncé is an ideal vessel, Norton said, because her messages of empowerment are rooted in her own disappointments and triumphs.
“If you listen to Beyoncé’s testimony,” she said, “she tells you about how she hears the critiques of people, how she criticizes herself, how she struggles. Just because she has not had to struggle for money doesn’t mean she hasn’t, as a human being, had physical and emotional and spiritual struggles.
“It’s powerful and freeing for those of us who are not Beyoncé,” Norton went on, “to allow ourselves to feel the things we feel, knowing that this person who appears to have it all has experienced some of the same trauma and woes that many of us have.
Print Headline: Church service inspired by Beyoncé — no halo required