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Beyoncé-themed mass draws hundreds of worshippers

Claire Stremple
Claire Stremple

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Grace Cathedral in San Francisco set off a small media storm this week when they announced a Beyoncé-themed mass. They hope to get a new demographic involved in their message by using the pop star’s lyrics.

The Mass starts like any good show, with all the performers backstage. Priests donning white robes with purple scarves or black shirts with white collars. But this isn’t an ordinary mass at Grace Cathedral.

Tonight, they’re taking a risk and building the service around the music of pop icon Beyoncé Knowles.

It’s paying off. Hundreds of people are waiting outside. Reverend Jude Harmon looks out the window at a line looping back and forth through the courtyard.

“It honestly almost moves me to tears because these are people who have come here from all over the city — actually, all over the nation — for this event,” he says.

Reverend Harmon is the Director of Innovative Ministry at Grace Cathedral, located downtown, near Union Square. It’s Wednesday night, when the Cathedral’s Vine ministry holds service. The Vine is a response to the changing spiritual landscape of San Francisco. It’s a less traditional take on worship, offering casual weekday mass. They usually have about fifty people in the audience. Tonight, they’re expecting 1,000.

“We’re really thrilled we’re having this response,” Harmon says. “We didn't expect this. We thought it would be a small exploration as a community about what it means to lift up black female voices because traditionally the church hasn’t done a great job of that.”

The message tonight is inclusivity, even if that means breaking from tradition.

“We’re a new community, we’re forming our own values, we’re discovering our own voice.”

The inside of the cathedral does look like a concert hall. Purple lights illuminate the cavernous space and there’s a sense of excitement in the young crowd. Bright phone screens dot the pews as people snap selfies. Beyoncé’s music fills the room, but it’s Reverend Yolanda Norton who steals the show. She strides up to the altar in high heels and reminds people to be caught up in the message, rather than in Beyoncé herself. Then, she ignites the crowd with a sermon.

“I’ve been asked time and time again, ‘Why Beyoncé?’” Norton’s voice echoes through the stone walls. “Because she reminds us that sometimes you have to do your thing your way. You don’t do it on demand, you don’t do it for your oppressor, you don’t sing when they want you to sing, you sing when God tells you to sing! Never give them your song!”

Critics said the mass would be reduced to Beyoncé worship, but there’s no image of the pop star in the church. Her words are used to interpret an ancient message that often gets lost in bible readings: a message of bravery and love. Norton, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, weaves the lyrics through her sermon, casting social and political struggles as a biblical struggle. The choir belts out Beyoncé’s hit single, “Freedom,” while the congregation prepares for communion.

In some ways, this mass is the same as all masses, the same structural bones filled with song and ceremony and the cries of impatient babies punctuating the readings. But the ages-old invocations are filled with new energy. Norton and Harmon are recasting the communion as a revolution against oppression.

For some, the mass carried a message of inclusion they had never heard before. Gary Bermudez works in San Francisco, but he’s a native of Costa Rica.

“For me, I had lots of emotions. I grew up being Catholic, but I am gay.” Bermudez says. Traditionally, the Church has not been open to all expressions of sexuality and love. “It changes all of the traditions and the vision that I have of being in church. I feel was accepted for the first time. Which is weird because I grew up in a Catholic community, but I never felt like I was accepted in it.”

After the mass, a dance party broke out in the aisle and front pews. Norton was exuberant.

“I feel amazing,” she yells over the music. “We had this wonderful service, black women were celebrated. We affirmed a whole lot of other people and I’m grateful god showed up in this space.”

Then, she led the remaining worshippers out of the church in a conga line.

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