My early teenage years were filled with Destiny’s Child. My three closest friends from high school—all Black women—would ride around singing anthems like “So Good” and “Bug-a-Boo.” In college Destiny’s Child gave voice to the determination and perseverance of me and my new crew. We were “survivors…we not gon’ give up.” We approached young men with the same bravado, asking “can you keep up?” and demanding a “soldier”.
As I grew up Beyoncé provided a soundtrack for my dreams and desires, my pain and laughter. The narrative was never perfect, but it evolved as I did, and that connection felt sacred. Over time my love for her music helped my friends and the young people in the church realise that I was still a human being after I was called into ministry. Her story also helped shaped my scholarly enquiry.
Black women don’t have public spaces where we feel seen and heard, even in the church. There is always someone trying to distort our understanding of how God operates in and through us. So, I wanted to share with my students, and my community, and the world, a place where I felt seen and heard. That is why I created the ‘Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible’ course that I teach at the San Francisco Theological College and why I tied worship into the course. I wanted my students of all ages to wrestle with how Black women feel seen and heard. I wanted them to make sense of how to open our image of who and what the church can be. My students dreamed alongside me and the church paid attention…and then the world.
What is a Beyoncé Mass?
The Beyoncé Mass is a womanist healing service. A womanist is a Black woman committed to the wholeness and survival of all people. A womanist is one who is not afraid to feel pain, not ashamed of her anger, and able to find joy. The Beyoncé Mass as a womanist service is one that puts God first, places Black women in the centre and then invites the world to unapologetically grab on to God’s vision of liberation and love.
The service has the traditional components of worship; there is a call to praise, prayer, scripture, sermon/homily, passing God’s peace, communion, etc. But we also offer testimony in the stories of women, especially women of colour, and particularly Black women.
We try to create a space that is honest and open, Christ-filled and that speaks to this present age. Every mass has a different theme and different music, but we are unwavering in our commitment to the Gospel message of love.
Are you at risk of worshiping Beyoncé?
We are not worshipping Beyoncé! Never that. I take very seriously my call as clergy and as a biblical scholar. I am earnest about the callings of my students who are discerning their space in ministry in this world. I weigh heavily the commitment of churches that host us as a part of their mission to reach toward safe, progressive spaces for people to wrestle with God.
At the last mass this was the benediction:
Beloved, be you young or old or somewhere in between, no matter your race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality, we bear witness to the diva God created in you. Go into the world with swag and confidence, peace and joy knowing that you are the thing that God had in mind when She looked out over creation and declared it good!
This is a small piece of a liturgy created to honour God and care for all God’s children. I believe that because me and the team are committed to the Christian principles of wholeness and justice we have developed a travelling, pop-up ministry that is compelling.
One of my favourite things about the mass is the people that I see attending. I love that when you stand in the front of the sanctuary you can see all races, all ages, all gender identities. At a Beyoncé Mass you will see clergy in colours, folks in drag, and everything in between.
I love it because it means that people still take the Beyoncé Mass team at our word when we say that all are welcome. I also love it because when I look out, I think: “This is what God had in mind for the kingdom of God.” It is amazing what happens when we stop trying to judge for God and start choosing love and welcome.
Wherever we go next with the Beyoncé Mass, I hope this humble offering is pleasing unto God and edifying to God’s children.
Rev Yolanda Norton is Chair of Black Church studies at San Francisco theological seminary and creator of ‘the Beyoncé Mass’
Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.