On a recent Sunday, a couple hundred people raised their hands at a worship service at Scripps College, where the choir forewent traditional hymnals to sing Beyonce’s chart-topping hits.
They sang some of her songs, like “Sweet Dreams” and “Flaws and All” to share messages of female empowerment and freedom. But the Reverend Yolanda Norton, who led the service, said the mass was also about spiritual formation.
“This is not your grandmother’s church,” said Norton. “This is a space and place committed to the gospel message of love.”
Norton named the service Beyonce Mass. She said it is an opportunity to make black women’s experiences the center of Christanity -- through Beyonce’s music.
She launched the service in 2018. This was after she created the class “Beyonce and the Hebrew Bible” at San Francisco Theological Seminary as a way to talk about the relationship between black women and the Bible.
In Norton’s words, Beyonce’s music and public persona mirrors some of the same ways black women navigate sexuality, relationships, and oppression.
“Every single time you underestimate Beyonce, she comes out the gate and shows you who she is,” said Norton. “That fortitude, that sass, all of those things say something about the black female experience.”
Those same qualities resonated with September Penn, whose worship group was hired to lead the music at Beyonce Mass. She said the service opened her eyes to how the vocal legend’s music related to her own life.
In the song “Bigger,” which Beyonce recorded for a Lion King-inspired album, the lyrics talk about the struggles of motherhood. Penn said the song struck her as she was preparing to lead rehearsals for service.
“She's literally telling my story. It just gripped me,” said Penn. “I remember having a couple of tears as I started sitting with this text. It was just real and raw.”
Penn said on most other Sundays, she leads worship at other churches where the music is focused on celebrating the victories in the Christian journey. In contrast, Beyonce’s music offered a chance to explore the challenges in life, according to Penn.
She added that Beyonce’s music had an intimate quality, just like the Biblical hymns associated with King David of Israel.
“David complained, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ He was so honest with God. But then he would always come back [and say] ‘yet I'll still boast.’ You feel that in many of the lyrics of Beyonce,” said Penn.
Penn added that placing Beyonce’s music in a service centering on black women does something radical to the very act of worship in churches: It unseats the image of God that many Christians have learned in church.
“We have been indoctrinated through the lens of the white man. So when they preach these passages, when they offer these interpretations, they're all coming from the place of power and empire, which is the white male point of view. But there is a femininity in there,” she said.
But it’s more than a matter of femininity, according to Norton. Beyonce Mass is meant to spread “womanist theology,” she said.
Womanist theology is a way to look at Christanity through a lens that empowers black women that has been around since the 1980s. Norton said different people have been finding their own theology to reflect their own liberation in Christianity, such as black people and women.
Norton added that the term “womanist” is similar to “feminist,” but specifically focused on the black female experience. She explained the comparison using the words of author Alice Walker, who developed the term.
Norton addeds that the word “womanist” is similar to “feminist,” -- but more focused on the black female experience.
“Feminist is to womanist just as lavender is to purple. That womanist is a deeper shade of purple because of the ways that we talk about the intersectional realities of race, class and gender,” she said.
She added, “When white women got the right to vote, black women did not. White women were fighting to go to work, black women were already working as domestics in their home, so womanists really take into account those intersectional issues.”
Norton, an ordained minister in the mainline Protestant tradition of Disciples of Christ, said womanist theology is accessible to everyone because it makes the universal element of God more inclusive. Sort of like Beyonce.
However, not everyone who comes to Beyonce Mass is a believer. Some people come just to hear Beyonce’s music.
Norton recognizes that the mass is also an opportunity for those who may have been hurt by the Church to see Christianity differently, and she tries to offer a welcoming space for attendees.
“I think of Beyonce Mass as a testimony service. It's a group of people telling the truth of how we see God moving in the world, and hoping that that resonates with the spirit and the mind of how someone else encounters whatever version of God they encounter,” she said.