Beyonce Mass draws crowd, criticism

Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service | 3/13/2020, 6 a.m.
The worship service began with the voice of Beyoncé singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem. Over ...
Attendees at the Beyoncé Mass in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center last Sunday in Washington, D.C. Photo by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group

WASHINGTON - The worship service began with the voice of Beyoncé singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem. Over the next hour, a choir-backed quintet of African-American women singers belted out other songs in the pop star’s repertoire. Beyoncé’s music filled the air between prayers, a sermon and a Communion-like time when congregants dropped rocks labeled “homophobia,” “body shaming” and “racism” into white plastic buckets that were placed before an onstage altar.

Last Sunday, on International Women’s Day, a theater in the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital was turned into the latest sacred space for Beyoncé Mass.

After the singers in the Black Girl Magic Ensemble sang “Survivor” — a song from Beyoncé’s days as a member of Destiny’s Child — the Rev. Yolanda Norton greeted the crowd of more than 500 people.

“We don’t do frozen chosen here; this is not your grandma’s church,” she said, wearing a purple “Won’t SHE do it?!” T-shirt on the Eisenhower Theater stage. “Sing as loud as you can, dance, clap, love, live, understand this worship: You are welcome here.”

Rev. Norton, 37, created the womanist worship service after she gave her Hebrew Bible students at San Francisco Theological Seminary an assignment to tell black women’s stories using Beyoncé’s music in a worship setting. She then developed a full liturgy that was presented at her seminary’s chapel, and later at an event that drew about 1,000 people to San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 2018.

“We are not worshipping Beyoncé,” Rev. Norton said, twice repeating her answer to an oft-asked question. “It is a Christian worship service and we are focused on the mission movement of Christ in the world and we are trying to promote a gospel message of love, inclusion and justice.”

Rev. Norton discovered that people beyond her seminary were interested in the service that combines worship and women’s rights.

“Because of the response that we got in San Francisco, we have accepted invitations to go various places across the world to do the Mass,” she said in an interview.

Beyoncé Mass has been presented, in partnership with churches and religious educa- tional institutions, 10 times, including in New York, in Portugal and in early March as the kickoff to “Women’s Herstory Month” at the chapel of Spelman College in Atlanta. In Washington, as elsewhere, it attracted a predominantly black female crowd but included people of a variety of ages, races and gender identities.

Rev. Norton said Beyoncé’s music is fitting for a service that focuses on womanist theology, the intersection of gender, class and race and the empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora.

“It represents something about the kind of stories that black women encounter in the world all the time,” Rev. Norton said. “In her music, we see her as mother, we see her as mourner, we see her as wife, we see her as activist, a person struggling with their own body image and identity.”

After the ensemble sang a portion of Beyoncé’s “Heaven,”male and female worship lead- ers took turns reading names of black women, including Sandra Bland and Atatiana Jefferson, who had died as a result of police actions.

Later, after the singing of “I Was Here,” a video played featuring women telling their stories of being among the first in their career fields and desiring to improve society for others.

Through a song like “Flaws and All,” a staple of Beyoncé Mass wherever it has been held, Rev. Norton said, the singer’s music can be sung as a prayer by women facing a range of emotions as they encounter God.

“The chorus of the song is, ‘I don’t know why you love me and that’s why I love you,’” said the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. “I don’t know about anybody else, but that tends to be my refrain with God. I’m not quite sure why God loves me, but I really do love God.”

Dean Emilie Townes of Vanderbilt University Divin- ity School said Rev. Norton has used Beyoncé’s music to create a service that empowers the spiritual journeys of black women but also “is stirring, it is thoughtful, it is liberating. It is a holy Mass that can free us all.”

Others have been less af- firming of the liturgical use of Beyoncé’s music in a service that includes a “Womanist Lord’s Prayer” that begins with the words “Our Mother, who is in heaven and within us, We call upon your names.”

After the event at the Epis- copal cathedral in San Francisco, author David Fiorazo wrote that “doing this at a church was both confusing and controversial.” Juicy Ecumenism blogger Jeffrey Walton called that same service “predictably over-the-top.”

The Rev. Wil Gafney of Brite Divinity School, who noted that the secular and the sacred have always coexisted in church settings, said Beyoncé Mass seems to have raised more eyebrows than did the U2cha- rist services that were popular among young Episcopalians in the early 2000s.

“I didn’t see or hear the accusation that people were worshipping U2 or quite the volume of ‘is this appropriate’ questions,” said Rev. Gafney, a professor of Hebrew Bible. Beyoncé, who has described St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston as her “home,” has been known to represent a wide array of religious experiences. She sang “Ave Maria” on her 2008 “I Am ... Sasha Fierce” album. She evoked Divine Mother imagery from various religious traditions during her 2017 Grammys performance. And in February, she was backed by a choir dressed in white as she sang “XO” and “Halo” at the memorial service for basketball star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Every Beyoncé Mass is a little different. The one in Washington did not have its usual Communion service because of coronavirus concerns.

Rev. Norton concluded by asking the Kennedy Center con- gregation, rich or poor, churchgoer or not, to keep lifting themselves up along with others.

“We have broken enough in this world. We have done enough harm and damage. But I believe through Christ Jesus, we can start over,” she said. “Go into the world and do the good thing that God is calling us to. Go in peace and go with God.”