This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
How a Beyoncé-Themed Mass Got an Atheist to Believe in Something
Beyoncé is all-powerful. We know this, right? Let us count the ways:
- She can inspire us spend an entire paycheck on a concert ticket or a fly piece of merch at a moment’s notice.
- She can turn us all into internet sleuths when someone dares to put their dirty teeth on her face.
- She can move hair out of her face using only her mind.
- She can record entire visual albums without any of us suspecting a damn thing.
- She can slay the Coachella (excuse me, the Beychella) stage for two hours without ever being out of breath.
And the list goes on.
There’s very little reason to doubt Beyoncé, but I have a confession to make. Forgive me, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter, first of her name, the Unbothered, Queen of the Beyhive, Breaker of Records, heir to the House of Dereon fortune, and Mother of Blue, Rumi, and Sir, for I have sinned.
Last week, I heard that Grace Cathedral was hosting a Beyoncé Mass, and initially, while that sounded very cool, I sacrilegiously questioned whether the power of Yoncé was strong enough to compel me to put aside all the religious PTSD I acquired from years of Catholic schooling and return to church? I probably haven’t been inside a church, outside of family weddings and tourism, since I was 17. But apparently none of that matters in the face of the mighty Beyoncé. I decided to put aside my qualms with religion for a night and go check it out.
I was pretty surprised by this... and so was my phone. When I texted a friend that I was on my way to church, my autocorrect was like, “Um, church? Surely, you meant to type “Chuckie,” as in the ginger from Rugrats, right? That’s way more you. This isn’t like you, girl.” Siri knows a lot about us, but it’s good to know we still have the capacity to surprise our A.I. overlords.
In case you haven't been to Grace Cathedral before, let me paint a picture. It’s the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation and it’s majestic as you-know-what!
The architecture: gorj!
The huge stained glass windows: stunning!
The labyrinth on the floor: meditative!
Basically, it’s a Quasimodo dreamscape.
Grace Cathedral also has historical resonance too. In honor of the completion and consecration of the cathedral, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon there in 1965 to approximately 5,000 people, the largest gathering there for the next 37 years (only surpassed by a 9/11 memorial service).
MLK Jr. being one of the first people to speak at Grace Cathedral is kind of fitting because, without him, something like this Beyoncé event, which focused on “how black women find their voice, represent the image of God, and create spaces for liberation,” might not have happened.
Cut to the day of. I roll up on my bike and it feels like that scene from Sister Act, when, after hearing Whoopi and the other nuns performing cool music, the hipsters outside change their tune from "Ew, church, how boring!" to "Maybe Jesus is cool after all? Let’s go inside and investigate!"
On my way up the front steps, I could already hear Beyoncé’s music blasting. There were film crews from local news stations everywhere. One of them was filming a woman in a sparkly leotard performing the choreography from the "Single Ladies" music video.
Inside, the Beyhive was buzzing. The place was packed. There were a lot of Boomers -- who I assume are church regulars because I didn’t see them at the Lemonade tour -- and large pockets of Millennials, teens, and lots and lots of gays.
I found an empty spot in a pew and was entirely ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit and sing along to "LET ME SIT THIS AAAAASS ON YA!" But one look at the pamphlet let me know that this would be a PG celebration of Beyoncé.
The choir started by belting out a rendition of Destiny's Child's “Survivor,” and the lyrics for the chorus were put up for the audience to join in. It felt powerful to see such a broad cross-section of generations united in this way. (And it was also pretty hilarious to hear a church full of people shout out “You know I'm not gon' diss you on the internet!")
After the song ended, everyone was praise hands-ing and dancing and cheering. It felt like a Beyoncé concert, but with "Amens" where the "Yaaaases" usually are. Then they asked us to bow our heads for a prayer from the Bible. That's when my religious PTSD came flooding back. I started feeling paranoid. Was Beyoncé a Trojan Horse-esque move to trick gays into returning to church for re-indoctrination?!? Is conversion therapy after communion?!?
The organizers probably expected that kind of reaction from some of us attendees because one of the pastors was wearing a shirt that said DON'T WORRY in capital letters.
By the time Reverend Yolanda M. Norton, who developed the event with a group called The Vine, started giving her very woke and inclusive sermon, all my anxiety fell away.
"I've been asked time and time again, 'Why Beyoncé?' 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.
Beyoncé didn't become Beyoncé on her own. I'm not standing in front of you because of anything that I have done. I'm here because of the Mary Nortons of the world, the Daisy Washingtons of the world, the Mary Reeds of the world, the Dorothy Lou Bryants of the world.
Who are these women? These are women who scrubbed toilets and washed floors, women whose names you'll never know, but black women who fought to their core to make sure that there was a better tomorrow for those who can stand in front of you and say, 'As a black woman, I am created in the image of God and...I am here to change the game and make the world a better place.'"
Her words were so powerful that I was on the verge of crying. The atheist in me was SHOOK!
And it was shaken up even more by what came next, which was a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” but with a twist. One of the choir members would kick off a call-and-response by highlighting a struggle ("For those in the bondage of racism / homophobia / privilege, we need..."), and the full choir and audience would respond by shouting out the lyrics “Freedom, freedom, I can’t move, freedom, cut me loose.” It was a powerful way of holding society -- and the church itself -- accountable for years of otherizing and discrimination through solidarity.
Again, the atheist in me: shooketh!
After the service was over, I caught up with a few other attendees to see if they were feeling as delivered as I was.
A woman named Dana, who attends mass every week, was feeling it just as much as I was: "It was absolutely fabulous! I loved every minute of it -- the incorporation of the music, the message from the minister, just the whole atmosphere. It was awesome. I didn't expect it at all."
Her friend Tamara was equally as impressed, specifically with how the mass captured Beyoncé's true essence: "When you think about Beyoncé, a lot of people think 'Oh, she wears skimpy outfits. Oh, the hair.' But what Beyoncé really is, in her core, I feel like, is what we saw at Coachella, and that was the spirit that was delivered here. It's amazing that people are leaving this building feeling energized and great about what they heard tonight. That's what church is supposed to be like, right?"
Then, I spotted a crowd of young teens dancing in a circle. I crept up like the elder Millennial that I am and talked to a girl named Maria. She said she hasn't been to church since she was seven, but came out for Beyoncé: "Mind blown. It was beautiful. It touched my soul. Beyoncé, she's just everything. I just feel like she's a queen; that's what she means to me."
Just like Maria, Beyoncé got my non-practicing self into a church pew, and I had a gay old time. I probably won’t be back for a regular worship service anytime soon, but it was a re-education of sorts. The evening reminded me that the traumatic, negative experiences I had in religious spaces in my past aren’t the full story. Yes, religion can absolutely be misused by people with prejudices, but it can also be a reason and opportunity for people to build community, to come together in these divisive times and sing, dance, and practice accepting and loving one another.
Somehow, Beyoncé got me to pontificate on the positive aspects of organized religion??? If that isn't a miracle, I don't know what is.