As the sounds of Beyoncé's "Freedom" filled Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, the Rev. Yolanda Norton addressed those crowded into the pews. "We try our best in this worship service to remind everyone that this is not a performance, this is not a spectator sport," she said. "This is worship."
Norton's worship layered a reading of Genesis, calls for racial justice and live music featuring "XO," which begins, "Baby kiss me before they turn the lights out."
Beyoncé Mass has arrived in the Twin Cities.
The religious service, billed on the worship team's website as a "groundbreaking spiritual experience," isn't about worshiping Queen Bey. Instead, the Christian Mass uses the music and personal story of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter to connect with God — while recognizing and celebrating Black women.
The traveling worship Mass — which includes a sermon and scripture readings along with live renditions of key Bey songs by Black women singers — was created by Norton, a scholar and Disciples of Christ minister. The idea was sparked by a class she taught at San Francisco Theological Seminary called "Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible."
In addition to Friday's service at Plymouth, Norton and her team are scheduled to give a free outdoor service Saturday at 3 p.m. in George Floyd Square at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.
Since 2018, Norton's Beyoncé Mass has been celebrated in churches and schools from Lisbon to New York City. This year, Norton and her team again began traveling to give in-person services after months of sharing the service online during the pandemic.
Coming to Minneapolis was a priority, she said. She partnered with sponsors, including United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, to bring the service here.
"We're having critical conversations about how Black women transform spaces and how we do God work and how we do justice work. Of course you have to be in Minneapolis," said Norton. "The city has been decimated over and over again by injustice."
And Norton sees Black women as on the front lines working for justice.
"We want to honor that work as holy and want to name, in particular, that George Floyd Square is sacred ground," she said. "The way that folks have continued to create and thrive and honor the legacy of a man who was killed, it's God's work. So that's how we got here."
Grace, 'flaws and all'
While popular music in church is far from new, the Beyoncé Mass was a first for Plymouth, said the Rev. DeWayne Davis, the church's lead minister, who fielded many questions from parishioners about it. (Beyoncé herself would not be present, he had to explain more than once.)
"I love this idea that in the work of an artist, there can be profound opportunities to encounter the sacred," he said. "It is human beings that have created the dichotomy between the sacred and profane."
Davis sees the Mass as an opportunity to take a broader view of what church can be — and partner with those who are seeking higher meaning in their lives.
"Beyoncé is very honest in what she's feeling. And sometimes I don't think church allows for that without the fear of being judged," he said. "But here's someone whose voice is lifted up because she's really wrestling with what it means to be a woman, to be in love, to be heard. To be imperfect. And she's bringing it out front. I'm sure church should be a place where people should feel comfortable doing that. The idea of grace means something."
Norton calls her theological approach "womanist," a term coined by writer and activist Alice Walker in the 1980s to describe a form of feminism that centers Black women. When Norton, now executive director of the Global Arts and Theology Experience, designed the class that led to the first Beyoncé Mass, she was looking for a central figure — a Black female musician — who "everybody knows," she said.
"When I was developing the modules for the class, I needed to be able to talk about respectability politics. I needed to be able to talk about Black women as mothers and talk about Black women's roles in liberation music, and movements," she said. "And all of those things are conversations that we have publicly had about Beyoncé's life, and so it felt like a pretty natural fit."
Plus, being close in age to Beyoncé, Norton felt she grew up with Destiny's Child and Beyoncé as the soundtrack to her life.
So far, Beyoncé hasn't weighed in on the movement.
"We pay for all the copyrights, and stuff like that, because we want to honor her work," said Norton. "But we haven't had any interaction with her or her camp."