It's coming to New York this week.
On Wednesday, October 23rd and Thursday the 24th, if you're in New York, you can go to church to worship at the altar of Beyoncé and all she represents.
Wednesday's service will happen at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn at 7:00 PM, and Thursday's will be at Harlem's St. James Presbyterian Church at the same time.
The Beyoncé Mass began where most modern religions seem to begin, in California. It started as the project of Rev. Yolanda Nortan, a scholar of Hebrew theology who began her foray into Beyoncé-worship by teaching a class on Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. The first Mass was held as part of a three-part series at San Francisco's Nob Hill Church called "Speaking Truth: The Power of Story in Community," dedicated to uplifting the voices of people who have been historically marginalized by the church, specifically black women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community.
The first mass drew nearly 1,000 people, and it has continued to gain traction since debuting in 2018. Services feature Bible readings interspersed with Beyoncé songs, and though they're dedicated to and led by Black women, they're open to everyone regardless of race or creed.
Rev. Norton is careful to emphasize that the mass isn't about worshiping Beyoncé at all, but instead about breaking open oppressive traditions. "I believe [Beyoncé] reminds us that 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 calls you to sing," she said.
Beyoncé - lift every voice and sing www.youtube.com
The service itself is supposed to be a place where "Black women find their voice, represent the image of God, and create spaces for liberation," according to its website. The description adds that the mass is a "womanist worship service that uses the music and personal life of Beyoncé as a tool to foster an empowering conversation about black women." Womanism is a version of feminism dedicated to breaking down the white connotations of the term "feminism," which has historically been used to describe a fight for women's rights that was created by and for white women and that exclusively addresses gender issues and aims for women to achieve equality with white males.
Though the definition of feminism is pliable and different for everyone, many conventional interpretations of feminism have failed to address the unique forces of race and class that inevitably tangle with gender, instead remaining lodged in capitalist systems that rely on the subjugation of certain people.
On the other hand, womanism is a term that was coined by the Black feminist thinker Alice Walker, and it views sexism as inextricable from racism. It also emphasizes the beauty of Black womanhood and promotes solidarity with Black men. Overall, womanism highlights the fact that sexism and racism both rely on the same kind of hierarchical thought that has always benefited off a structure wherein some people thrive because others are kept down.
"The patriarchal/kyriarchal/hegemonic culture seeks to regulate and control the body—especially women's bodies, and especially black women's bodies—because women, especially black women, are constructed as the Other, the site of resistance to the kyriarchy," says writer Yvonne Aburrow in explanation of the term. "Because our existence provokes fear of the Other, fear of wildness, fear of sexuality, fear of letting go—our bodies and our hair (traditionally hair is a source of magical power) must be controlled, groomed, reduced, covered, suppressed."
This fear has long been codified in the Church, which swivels around an age-old terror of female power and its colonialist imperatives. Nowhere is the Church's tendency to suppress the voices of women (and particularly women of color) more apparent than in the evangelical church's "purity movement," which demonizes sexuality, often through a racist lens. Beyoncé, specifically, has been a target of evangelical racism; for example, the evangelical Mike Huckabee recently speculated that Jay-Z was a "pimp," sparking a firestorm of controversy.
She has also been uniquely outspoken in challenging and subverting Christian norms, perhaps most famously in her instantly iconic Virgin Mary-inspired pregnancy photoshoot. According to The Washington Post, Beyoncé's "re-appropriation of Virgin Mary iconography offers a biting critique of this supreme exemplar of feminine whiteness and the ideology that constructs and perpetuates it." She's deconstructed the Virgin Mary image before; in her 2017 Grammys performance, she blended Virgin Mary imagery with references to the Yoruba goddess Oshun, creating a tribute to the African diaspora and the common threads that connect Christianity and diasporic faiths.
Beyoncé live performance at the 2017 Grammys (Love Drought + Sandcastles) www.youtube.com
If Beyoncé's visual and thematic choices subvert oppressive Christian imagery, then the Beyoncé Mass does this for the entire structure of the Church. And it's needed: Black women are particularly active in the church, outnumbering men two to one. Still, in terms of church leadership, this number is reversed. As a service led by women of color and designed to invite people who perhaps wouldn't feel welcome or interested in the Church in the first place, the mass is a step in the right direction, perhaps a vital blueprint for future religious services that could help young people or people who feel excluded by religion find a home in the comforting, communal world of faith and music.
Beyoncé & Kendrick Lamar Freedom Live at MetLife Stadium www.youtube.com
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