Deborah Joy Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf in the OWN series “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN
Deborah Joy Winans, the real-life member of a famous musical church family, has spent the past few years living with another faithful bunch that, despite being fictional and more melodramatic, shares something with her own: Mistakes are made, but they just keep coming back to God.
On “Greenleaf,” the original series on the Oprah Winfrey Network, now in its fifth and final season, Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf, the youngest daughter of a family that runs a Black megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee.
Winans’ character has miscarried one of a set of twins, has coped with a husband who is questioning his sexuality and has striven to gain what she views as her rightful place in her family and in her church. As the final season starts, Charity is helping a global church conglomerate take over her family’s Calvary Fellowship World Ministries.
Winans, a 30-something Detroit native who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian, talked with Religion News Service about the show that moved her from stage to screen and about the real-life events the country has faced since production for the show wrapped.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your character, Charity Greenleaf, is greeted by her mother in this season’s first episode as “Little Miss Benedictine Arnold, traitor to a whole family.” How does it feel to play the outcast?
It feels terrible. But I love the fact that Charity takes it and keeps going. She recognizes the mistake that she’s made, the betrayal she has been a part of, the hurt that she’s created, and she keeps steppin’. She’s not happy about it, but she realizes she has to keep going to make it better.
Charity is part of a fictional Black church dynasty. And you are part of the real-life Winans gospel music family. How would you compare the two, if you can at all?
I’m thankful that I don’t have to compare them in many ways. But with my family, the Winans family, and the Greenleaf family, what I do know is that they’re all human. They all have failed. They all have made mistakes, but they all always go back to their foundation. They go back to the Word of God and they revisit their faith and the next steps to make in order to really stay aligned with the faith, as opposed to the wrong of what they’ve done.
You are the niece of the gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans and the daughter of Carvin Winans of the gospel group the Winans. Have you ever been interested in singing?
Singing has never been an interest — not even half an interest. I’ve loved acting since I was a little girl. And so I got my BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in acting. I spent a month studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia and then I went on to get my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in acting from California Institute of the Arts. Acting has always been my main passion, my drive, my desire. Music has simply been an additive in these later years, as far as the jobs that I’ve been blessed to have.
Oprah Winfrey sought you out for the role of Charity. How did you connect with her?
I was doing a workshop of my uncle’s musical, “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” in New York in 2015 and Oprah, along with Gayle (King) and Cicely Tyson, came to a reading. Two months later, she called and said that she could not get me out of her mind for this particular role. Unfortunately, nobody (at the network) knew who I was. I said, “Well, yeah, I haven’t done anything yet.” And she said, “That’s OK. I think that they’ll see what I see when it’s time for you to audition. I’m going to open the door for you as wide as I possibly can and when you go, you do what you Winans do.” And I was like, “Yes, ma’am.”
Actors Ketih David, left, and Deborah Joy Winans in the OWN series “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN
Has there been pushback from Black church members about the show, given that the Greenleafs deal with murder, abuse and affairs?
I do think that there has been some pushback because there’s so much drama and it’s so juicy. But that’s what you want in a dramatic TV show. That’s what keeps viewers coming back week to week. But I think they recognize that this is not based on someone’s church or some specific pastor or some specific deacon. This is just a world that was created to honor the cornerstone that the church is in our Black community, (while it) allows people to possibly start conversations that maybe previously were just sort of swept under the rug.
Charity did everything she could to become an associate pastor. Do you think her struggle to be a preacher reflects real life for women in some churches, including Black churches?
Oh, absolutely. In the Black community and particularly in the Black church community, for years, women were not seen as equal. Charity fights to do the right thing in the eyes of her parents, to be the perfect child, to listen to herself and really go after this calling that she has felt on her as a little girl. But her family says, “Oh yeah, OK. Maybe. Soon. But just keep singing.” And they don’t agree or see the vision that she feels like God has given her for her own life. And that happens a lot in the church.
If you could talk to Charity, the character you play, what would you tell her?
Oooh, girl! You need to love you. I would tell Charity that she’s been searching for the approval of her family for who she is, for what she wants, for where she believes she’s supposed to be. And because she’s been searching for their approval, she has left the one and only approval that she needs, which is God’s. I would just tell her to look at herself through the lens of Christ, through the lens of love. When you recognize who you are in God and your value and your worth, you don’t need anybody else’s approval.
Deborah Joy Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf in the OWN series “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN
Has COVID-19 affected you and your real-life family?
My Uncle Marvin, my dad’s twin brother, came down with COVID-19 and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. It didn’t look very good at all. But what was beautiful about that is that we came together as a family via Zoom and started having these family meetings every week, catching up with everybody, praying for those that have been affected, those that are hurting. And, thankfully, my uncle is doing very well.
With the country dealing with a pandemic, the George Floyd protests and an economic downturn, how does a show like “Greenleaf” fit into people’s lives right now?
I think that “Greenleaf” does offer a chance for people to let go. But it’s still honoring a Black family. It’s seeing yourself represented, and I think that we need that.
I do think this pandemic of COVID-19 has really brought us together as a world, as a human family. Because everybody was stuck at home, having to figure out how to manage, everybody also had to see this global pandemic of racism. They didn’t get to turn a blind eye to it. I tell people, if you have breath in your body you are able to help make a change in this country. Find your voice, find your way to serve. There is something that you can do to further this fight for justice in our world.
Back in the 1990s, before cellphones and email and the internet were a thing, when George H.W. Bush was in his final year as president, I headed to college. I had moved from East Tennessee to Philadelphia to go to Eastern University, a little Christian college known for holding together faith and social justice.
As I settled in and began studies, I kept hearing about a guy named Bryan Stevenson, an Eastern alumnus, class of 1981, who was doing some pretty amazing things with his life.
Bryan was a bit of a legend at the university, and his story had already been told and retold to me by our mutual friend and professor, Tony Campolo, a well-known preacher who has a reputation for “remembering big.”
But it turns out Bryan’s life is as big as the story Tony remembered. Bryan turned it into a book, and now a film, titled “Just Mercy,” which opened on Christmas and stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.
Bryan went from our alma mater in Philly to attend Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors. Immensely gifted and with a Harvard degree, he could have gotten a job with pretty much any firm he wanted, and name his salary.
Instead, Bryan headed to Alabama, where the residue of slavery is so clearly visible in a criminal justice system that enshrines racism. He moved into a one-room apartment in Montgomery “with nothing but a soccer ball” (according to our friend with the tendency to remember big) and started defending people on death row.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, attends a special screening of “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” at the SVA Theatre on June 24, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
A century ago, as Bryan knew well, Alabama was one of the states with the most lynchings, and to this day it’s one of the states with the most executions. It is no coincidence that the states that held on to slavery the longest continue to hold on to the death penalty, in a direct correlation between racism of the past and racism of the present. That’s where Bryan felt led, even called.
Particularly urgent for Bryan were the cases of those who were wrongfully convicted, often because of the color of their skin.
He was not only looking out for the prisoners, but for the system that they had been caught up in. One of the first quotes I ever heard from Bryan was this one: “We have a justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” He sought to ensure that “equal justice under the law” was not just an aspirational slogan inscribed on the Supreme Court, but became a reality.
In 1989 he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which has now helped save the lives of over 125 men on death row and in 2018 opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known as the National Lynching Memorial.
His TED Talk got the longest standing ovation in the history of TED Talks and has been viewed over 6 million times. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Bryan “America’s Nelson Mandela.” Time magazine recognized him as one of 100 most influential people. There were even whispers that someday Bryan might be a justice on the Supreme Court.
Stunned by the simplicity and humility of his life, one reporter said to Bryan, “Why would you be this kind of lawyer?” Bryan’s winsome response: “Why would I not be this kind of lawyer?”
The more I learned about Bryan, the more his decisions made sense. He had grown up in segregated public schools and steeped in the historic black church, where liberation and justice flow like baptismal waters. (At Eastern, he had directed the gospel choir.) Early in his career, as he arrived to defend a young white man at trial, he was scolded by the judge who said only “counsel” were allowed in the courtroom.
For many, Bryan Stevenson is a superhero akin to the Avengers fittingly played onscreen by the actor who played Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther.” Jordan has said he was intimidated when he first met Bryan.
Eventually, I got to meet Bryan, and for the past 10 years it has been an honor to call him a friend. He inspired me to write “Executing Grace,” my book on the death penalty, and helped me to craft it. Bryan has been a mentor not only in justice, but also in hope. Indeed, nearly every time Bryan speaks, he talks about “protecting our hope,” a precious, timely message. In his words, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
“Protecting our hope” means never losing hope that love is more powerful than hatred, life more powerful than death, mercy more powerful than condemnation. As Bryan says, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
A “Just Mercy” movie poster. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
“Just Mercy” is not a film about a man. It is about a movement to heal the wounds of racism and hatred. More than knowing his name, Bryan wants people to know the names of the 4,000 African Americans lynched as victims of racial terror and too often forgotten — people like Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant when she was hung upside down by a white mob, set on fire and even cut open so her baby could be stomped to death.
He wants people to know the name of George Junius Stinney, who died in the electric chair at the age of 14, convicted by an all-white jury that deliberated for 10 minutes after a trial that lasted less than two hours with no witnesses called and no defense presented, no physical evidence — and whose sentence was vacated 70 years after his execution.
Bryan wants people to know the name of his friend Anthony Ray Hinton, who survived over 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, one of over 160 wrongfully convicted survivors of death row. Bryan wants us to know their names, not his.
He wants America to know the names of the casualties of racial terror throughout American history, and those who are next in line to be those casualties, as 1 in every 3 black boys born today can expect to go to prison.
During the filming of “Just Mercy,” I was invited on set to watch a scene being shot in an abandoned prison in Georgia. At one point a bitter white corrections officer throws a prisoner against a wall. Undaunted, the man smiles with a defiant hope, eyes set on heaven, and begins singing an old hymn: “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day, still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
Later, I got to meet a bunch of the actors, including the man who played the correctional officer. He smiled when I mentioned how good he was at being bad. As we ate, I saw an image of the world Bryan is building: prison guards and death row inmates talking and laughing over lunch. It was a world in which each of us is more than the worst things we’ve done. Where if we have the courage, we can see past the costumes we wear and get to know each other as children of God, and we can recognize and celebrate the dignity of every person.
Please watch “Just Mercy” with this in mind. Don’t just munch your popcorn and go home talking about what a hero Bryan is. Doing so dismisses what Bryan is really about because it lets you off the hook. Walk away from “Just Mercy” dreaming and scheming about the hero you want to be.
African literature has attracted immense international interest in recent years, and a number of “Afropolitan” icons and rising stars have won acclaim from critics and literary festivals.
Yet most reading lists released by major newspapers and journals are still disproportionately Western-centric, and African literature lacks enough media attention. Despite this, more avid readers across the globe are getting to know names such as Nuruddin Farah, Alain Mabanckou, Ben Okri, Aminatta Forna and Chigozie Obioma, marking the diversification of the literary taste of millennial bibliophiles.
Literature originating from Africa often delves into the legacy of colonialism, sheds light on the tyranny of capital over labor, recounts the identity crisis that many Africans battle with, and represents the unheard voices of ordinary people and unsung heroes.
Chigozie Obioma is a 33-year-old Nigerian novelist and writer who has earned global recognition after publishing three books at such a young age. In 2015 and 2019, he was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Time magazine described his novel “An Orchestra of Minorities” as a “mystical epic” that confirms his “place among a raft of literary stars.” The Guardian referred to him as the “heir to Chinua Achebe” who is “a good writer whose work has a deeply felt authenticity, combined with old-fashioned storytelling.”
Obioma is currently an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the US.
Fair Observer talks to Obioma about his career, novels and the representation of colonialism in African literature.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: In “An Orchestra of Minorities,” you depict the ordeal of an unassuming poultry farmer who falls in love with a pharmacy student hailing from a prosperous family. In order to impress the parents of his beloved woman, he sells his entire belongings to take up a position at a northern Cypriot university and fund his studies. Shortly after arriving in Cyprus, he realizes that the middlemen who had promised him a university placement had tricked him and that there was no position available for him at the college whatsoever. Is this suffering a situation that many young Nigerians go through? While crafting the novel, was it your intention to raise awareness of this challenge faced by Nigerians?
Chigozie Obioma: Yes, I always say that fiction is a medium that takes lived experience and molds it into something that can become so new [that] those who have lived the experience may not even recognize it. Even more so, this novel covers how African migrants are treated in the West quite a bit, but people rarely talk about how we are treated in countries outside of the west.
It is, of course, a shame that the selfish culture of African politicians leaves their states in catastrophic states, but when these migrants go to places like India, Turkey, Cyprus, Mexico and other places, they face inhuman treatments. I myself lived in North Cyprus for five years and the travails of Chinonso, the protagonist of the novel, are similar to what I and others experienced. I wrote about my own ordeal in an essay earlier this year for the Paris Review.
Ziabari: In an interview, you said you wanted to chronicle the landmarks of Igbo history and civilization in the “Orchestra,” including the encounter with the Portuguese in the 15th century and the Nigerian Civil War. Do you think your readers have been able to absorb the historical messages you planned to share with them or is it that this pedagogic effort has been overshadowed by the supremacy of the storyline and the ups and downs of the life of Chinonso, his quest for excellence and his love journey?
Obioma: I think that this being a work of fiction rather than non-fiction — I could, for instance, have elected to simply write a historical book — I had to layer the historical portions around a particular story. So, both of them, I hope, go together. The historical portions of the novel are organic to the narrator, for it is the voice of a god. Thus, through its testimony about itself and its host, it also describes the world as it has experienced it over these many centuries.
Ziabari: You consider yourself an ontologist interested in the metaphysics of being and existence. The themes of fate, destiny and sublimity are often missing in the majority of novels written today, but you explore these territories in your fiction extensively. Do you think this approach to existence is what is winning you popularity and helping your work stand out among hundreds of novels by major literary figures?
Obioma: I am not sure why my novels have received some recognition, but I agree that the themes I have focused on are mostly marginal and not often what many writers consider. One of the reasons why I have focused on fate and destiny is because my people, the West Africans, think mostly in these terms. I want to capture the essence of their common worldview.
It is also because Nigeria to me is a paradox. This is a country that could be rich but is poor. There are, of course, deep philosophical reasons why this is so. But on the surface, that paradox stings and stares at you in the face, and it haunts my mind. This makes one ponder things that are subterranean to the consciousness — things that seems to lie beneath the surface and have no easy answers. The meaning of life, the “metaphysics of being and existence” as I always put it, is one such quandary.
Ziabari: You’ve implied on a number of occasions that your relationship with your homeland of Nigeria is a capricious one. On the one hand, it is the home that sends you away because of its lack of provisions and opportunities. On the other, it is the home that embraces you when you return from the US. Is it realistic to say your novels are partly inspired by your own story and your special connection with “home”?
Obioma: Capricious indeed! But I am wedded to it. The truth is that I am a reluctant exile in America. I wish I could live in Nigeria, frankly. That is my home. That’s where I live untrammeled, without any fear of being an immigrant or a racial minority. It is where my ancestors lived and died, and the place whose food I love to eat. But yet, I feel I cannot live there.
There is a wall that has come between my home and me, and it is a wall I do not have the courage to scale. [In a recent interview, I talked of] how this shapes the tone of my fiction in that it often leads to a sort of “tragic vision” which comes about out of the sadness of writing about Nigeria. I said there that such writing is a masochistic act because “Nigeria riles me, wounds me, and heals me at the same time. I love it entirely and loathe it at the same time, and in that kind of relationship, a certain form of despair often gets hold of the mind. My writing is sometimes an effort to rid myself of that despair through the joy of artistic creation. The witness borne then, if I might say, is a witness to my own surrendering to a light that emerges from my own darkness, and in that light, I am refreshed and made alive.”
Ziabari: Why do you think so few prominent writers have shed light on chi in Igbo cosmology and that old African cultural heritage is neglected by the youth? Do you consider the postcolonial influence of the West on Nigeria to be a negative one?
Obioma: I think many African writers and thinkers have tried to encourage an embrace of our heritage. There was Chinua Achebe, for instance, but also, to some extent, Wole Soyinka. The purpose for me is to reassure our identity as people who had some culture and civilization prior to the coming of the West. I think because of colonialism and slavery, followed by the underdevelopment of most African countries, there has set in this self-damaging inferiority complex — the idea that we are no good.
I was in Abuja around two years ago and some people were debating on national radio whether we should be recolonized. Now, this is a mistake. We only need to learn history, to look back at the sophisticated sociopolitical systems we had, the economic systems, the egalitarian political structures to see that precolonial Africa was not one night from which the West rescued us. I think without this reassurance, this strengthening of our identity, this solving of our identity crisis, we cannot recover.
Ziabari: Your debut novel, “The Fishermen,” was acclaimed by critics and shortlisted for a 2015 Man Booker Prize. Why do you think the novel captured so much attention and elicited positive reactions globally, considering that it was your first novel? Many aspiring writers, who happen to write captivating novels, struggle for years to win publicity for their work. What was the key to the success of “The Fishermen” as a debut?
Obioma: If I knew the reason why anyone enjoyed my work, I would be very glad. I think, humbly, it is simply to work hard and believe in the vision you have for a particular project and to be true to that vision. I have always wanted to write a novel about siblinghood and that celebrates family and consanguinity. I think that is what “The Fishermen” does well above anything else.
In that sense, it has universal appeal and touches on aspects of humanity that are recognizable and relatable. I also often think that there is something profoundly human about the relationship between the four brothers and how, just by speaking words, a stranger could cause an irreparable fracture between them. I think this is what many readers — across the 30 or so countries where the book has been published — connect with.
Ziabari: You once said that you wouldn’t have written “The Fishermen” if you hadn’t moved to Cyprus to study. How did being based in Cyprus influence your understanding of Nigeria? Do you ascribe the creation of “The Fishermen” to homesickness that possibly invigorated your sense of belonging to Nigeria?
Obioma: An Igbo proverb says that we hear the sound of the udu drum clearer from a distance rather than from being close by it. This is very true of writing. When I am in a place or close to a place, it is often difficult to imagine it fully. But when I am separated from a place and have distance from it, I am better able to see it, to fully conceive it imaginatively. Since fiction is all about creativity anyway — the invention of the nonexistent — trusting in hindsight.
If I sat across from you at a cafe and I was to describe that moment on the spot, I would write about the obvious things you did. But if I lie down in my bed later that night and the light was off and I closed my eyes, the fine-grain details will trickle in. I will remember the unobvious things, the person scratching their wrist, or hawking into a napkin — those fine details that enrich fiction. It is when the person is gone and the meeting has ended and the day is forgotten that things become closer, clearer.
Ziabari: Many critics have compared you to the legendary Chinua Achebe and called you his successor. Does it make you feel proud to be compared to Achebe in the eyes of noted literati and authors? Do you personally admire Achebe’s work?
Obioma: In some ways, “The Fishermen” shares an affinity with“Things Fall Apart,” Achebe’s seminal work. Achebe wrote “Things Fall Apart” to document the fall of the Igbo civilization, the African civilization or culture. I am looking at a more specific fall of Nigeria — of our civilization, too, but in relation to Nigeria specifically. So, it’s a similar project. And in the ways in which Achebe tried to reveal the Igbo civilization to his readers, and “An Orchestra of Minorities” does a similar job.
Ziabari: A final question. Where do you think African literature, in general, and the literature of Nigeria, in particular, are heading? Should we expect more Man Booker and Nobel nominations?
Obioma: Ah, I hope so of course. I think African literature is in good shape. There are wonderful writers popping up here and there, and I won’t be surprised if we have more nominations and wins.
Every single day, black women are recreating the narrative of what it means to be a black woman as they fight against the preconceived notions, unwarranted judgment, and degrading labels society has given them.
Despite the odds stacked against them, we continue to read the stories about black women soaring in entertainment, media, education, and literature.
Reading the title, I wondered: “Am I a well-read black girl too?”
Turning one page after another, the answer was simple. For Edim, it started as an inside joke about being someone who “read a lot always and had a book with me in bed.”
“That’s me too,” I thought to myself.
Edim wore a T-shirt with the words plastered on it, sparking conversations here and there from others about her favorite books and authors. This T-shirt birthed a nationwide book club, a literary festival in Brooklyn and a sisterhood among women of color across the world.
Edim created a space where, she writes, “Black women’s voice could be centered” and “a call to action for Black women to freely define their own narratives on their own terms.”
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves provides black women and girls with a variety of selections and pays homage to great writers who paved the way such as Toni Morrison, who passed away recently, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou.
The crux of the book dives into an important discussion of representation in the literary world.
It featured these 21 esteemed Black women authors and writers:
Each of them recalled their first time seeing themselves reflected in literature. Sounds simple, right?
It wasn’t. It was complex, intricate, and intimate. These stories weren’t just about finding a character to identify with.
It was more.
It was about the journey of finding themselves and escaping into a different reality than their own. It was learning how literature shaped, questioned, and challenged their lives, their identities, their beliefs, their family structure, their struggles, triumphs, and ultimately, finding their voices.
“Reading highlights the intersection of narrative and self-image to create compelling explorations of identity. Reading allows us to witness ourselves,” Edim writes. “Being a reader is an incredible gift, providing me with the lens to interpret the world.”
And with that, Edim forced me to ask myself: “When did I first see a reflection of me in books?”
Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She is also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.
When I see celebrities interviewed, I often marvel at how they seem to have it so together. Their confidence radiates when they are “on.” It’s almost as if they are on another plane than us regular folk. But after watching a few episodes of the new docuseries “Behind Her Faith,” I found myself forgetting that the women sharing their intimate stories of disappointment, triumph, and faith with honesty and raw emotion are famous people.
“Behind Her Faith,” created by writer/director Paula Bryant-Ellis, features Essence Atkins(“Marlon,” “Ambitions”), Aisha Hinds (“Underground,” The Hate U Give), Niecy Nash(“Claws,” “When They See Us”) and Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room. The docuseries launched its first season with each woman in one of four installments airing on the Urban Movie Channel, a subscription streaming service dedicated to Black film and television from AMC Networks’ privately-owned subsidiary, RLJ Entertainment.
“You see the glamour, you see the red carpet, you see the television shows, and then you say, even if they have problems, oh, they’re rich. Oh, they’re successful. They can get through. No, they’re just like us. They feel pain, just like we do,” said Bryant-Ellis.
The Urban Movie Channel, which launched in 2018, is in growth mode as it works to expand its viewership. As support grows for Bryant-Ellis’ vision, she’ll expand her circle of stories in future seasons to include accomplished women of faith in entertainment, sports, music, business, politics, and ministry. Behind Her Faith is the first major foray into filmmaking for Bryant-Ellis, as she has held multiple leadership roles in banking and finance. She’s a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, has an MBA from the University of Phoenix, and also a BA in Accounting from Concordia University. It was her son, Jay Ellis, who encouraged her to make the move. He’s the executive producer of the show and you may recognize his name from the actor’s lead roles on HBO’s “Insecure” (Lawrence) and the horror film Escape Room (Jason).
“He [Jay] was the one that said, ‘Mom, I think you should get into entertainment.’ After I left corporate America, he said, ‘I think you should start checking into producing so that we can do projects together.’ And so that’s pretty much what I did. And then, from there, I went back to school and took classes, and the creativity started to kind of bubble up, and I had a chance to create this show,” said Bryant-Ellis, who studied filmmaking and producing at the New York Film Academy in New York and Los Angeles.
It was her love and passion for Christ that inspired Bryant-Ellis to do the series. She had been praying for guidance on what to do next and feeling a strong desire to create positive content that inspires, especially since she believes that women of color are not typically represented well on television.
“God had my heart at the time. He put this show in my spirit to do. I wanted to use women that we knew their faces, but we didn’t know their backstory. We get sound bites a lot of times through interviews, but there wasn’t a form where they could just sit and tell you about what their journey looked like and the challenges that they faced and how they have endured and then the importance of a relationship with God in their life. All the women were women that I prayed about. God made it possible for each one of them to bring their stories,” said Bryant-Ellis.
She has a strong relationship with God now, but Bryant-Ellis says it took a while for her to mature in her faith. She grew up in a Baptist church and accepted God into her life as a teen, desperate for a lifeline from the pain she experienced when her parents divorced.
“I was just in this broken place. My parents had divorced, and I was trying to figure this thing out. I was 13 at the time. By the time I’m 16, I’m still sitting in all this pain, and I don’t know what to do with it. Back then, they called it, ‘join the church.’ You had to join the church, well technically, that meant you were giving your life to Christ.'” shared Bryant-Ellis.
And she did. But the experience left her heartbroken because she thought her life would immediately be better, and it wasn’t. For her, life got worse before it got better.
“In that moment that we accept Christ, our life does change. But nobody tells you about walking out that journey and the importance of a relationship. It was a long time before I picked up the Bible. I was very angry, very broken. It was a long time before I prayed. And in my twenties, I got on my knees, and I told God, I said, ‘You know what? If I’m going to be saved, you’re going to have to do better, because I can’t do church. I want a relationship,'” explained Bryant-Ellis, who said from that moment on, she was on an “amazing” journey to find that intimacy with God. “If I call you father, I want to have the same conversations with you that I would with my father. I want to laugh with you. I want to cry with you. I want to come to you for advice,” she continued.
Over the years, she has gone back to attending church off and on and credits one former pastor for giving her a love of studying the Bible.
“I go to church to get my Word, and then I’m out of there. I go to church to get fed. But then I know the responsibility of growing in the Word — that onus is on me. I have to be active and learning the Word and sitting with God, spending that quiet time with him in my praise, in my worship. That’s my responsibility,” said Bryant-Ellis.
And that intimacy is at the core of her message to viewers. When you listen to each woman in the episodes, openly claiming her faith and stories, it’s clear that they all have an authentic relationship with God, and it’s a genuine part of how they live their lives.
“I feel so honored that God trusted me with these stories and honored that these women trusted me with their voice. I feel like a shepherd of their stories right now,” said Bryant-Ellis.
Attendees stand in preparation for the Beyoncé Mass in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center, as the clock on the screen winds down and Beyoncé’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice” plays, in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2020. (Photo by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group)
The worship service began with the sound of Beyoncé singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song also known as the “black national anthem.”
Over the next hour, a choir-backed quintet of black women singers belted out other songs in the pop star’s repertoire. Beyoncé’s music filled the air between prayers, a sermon and a Communion-like time when congregants dropped rocks labeled “homophobia,” “body shaming” and “racism” into white plastic buckets that were placed before an onstage altar.
On Sunday (March 8), International Women’s Day, a theater in the Kennedy Center was turned into the latest sacred space for Beyoncé Mass.
After the singers in the Black Girl Magic Ensemble sang “Survivor” — a song from Beyoncé’s days as a member of Destiny’s Child — the Rev. Yolanda Norton greeted the crowd of more than 500 people.
“We don’t do frozen chosen here; this is not your grandma’s church,” she said, wearing a purple “Won’t SHE do it?!” T-shirt on the Eisenhower Theater stage. “Sing as loud as you can, dance, clap, love, live, understand this worship: You are welcome here.”
The Rev. Yolanda Norton, creator and curator of the Beyoncé Mass, addresses attendees at the event in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2020. (Photo by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group)
Norton, 37, created the womanist worship service after she gave her Hebrew Bible students at San Francisco Theological Seminary an assignment to tell black women’s stories using Beyoncé’s music in a worship setting. She then developed a full liturgy that was presented at her seminary’s chapel, and later at an event that drew about 1,000 people to San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 2018.
“We are not worshipping Beyoncé,” Norton said, twice repeating her answer to an oft-asked question. “It is a Christian worship service and we are focused on the mission movement of Christ in the world and we are trying to promote a gospel message of love, inclusion and justice.”
Norton discovered that people beyond her seminary were interested in the service that combines worship and women’s rights.
“Because of the response that we got in San Francisco, we have accepted invitations to go various places across the world to do the mass,” she said in an interview.
Buckets hold rocks that symbolized the weight of “isms” and “phobias” that were given to attendees, to later unburden themselves from them by giving them back at the Beyoncé Mass in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2020. (Photo by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group)
Beyoncé Mass has been presented, in partnership with churches and religious educational institutions, 10 times, including in New York, in Portugal and in early March as the kickoff to “Women’s Herstory Month” at the chapel of Spelman College, a historically black women’s school in Atlanta. In Washington, as elsewhere, it attracted a predominantly black female crowd but included people of a variety of ages, races and gender identities.
Norton said Beyoncé’s music is fitting for a service that focuses on womanist theology, the intersection of gender, class and race and the empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora.
“It represents something about the kind of stories that black women encounter in the world all the time,” said Norton. “In her music we see her as mother, we see her as mourner, we see her as wife, we see her as activist, a person struggling with their own body image and identity.”
After the ensemble sang a portion of Beyoncé’s “Heaven,” male and female worship leaders took turns reading names of black women, including Sandra Bland and Atatiana Jefferson, who had died as a result of police actions. Later, after the singing of “I Was Here,” a video played featuring women telling their stories of being among the first in their career fields and desiring to improve society for others.
Through a song like “Flaws and All,” a staple of Beyoncé Mass wherever it has been held, Norton said, the singer’s music can be sung as a prayer by women facing a range of emotions as they encounter God.
“The chorus of the song is, ‘I don’t know why you love me and that’s why I love you,’” said the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. “I don’t know about anybody else but that tends to be my refrain with God: I’m not quite sure why God loves me, but I really do love God.”
Dean Emilie Townes of Vanderbilt University Divinity School said Norton has used Beyoncé’s music to create a service that empowers the spiritual journeys of black women but also “is stirring, it is thoughtful, it is liberating, it is a holy mass that can free us all.”
People head in to the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center for the Beyoncé Mass in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2020. (Photo by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group)
Others have been less affirming of the liturgical use of Beyoncé’s music in a service that includes a “Womanist Lord’s Prayer” that begins with the words “Our Mother, who is in heaven and within us, We call upon your names.” After the event at the Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco, author David Fiorazo wrote that “doing this at a church was both confusing and controversial.” Juicy Ecumenism blogger Jeffrey Walton called that same service “predictably over-the-top.”
The Rev. Wil Gafney of Brite Divinity School, who noted that the secular and the sacred have always coexisted in church settings, said Beyoncé Mass seems to have raised more eyebrows than did the U2charist services that were popular among young Episcopalians in the early 2000s.
“I didn’t see or hear the accusation that people were worshipping U2 or quite the volume of ‘is this appropriate’ questions,” said Gafney, a professor of Hebrew Bible. “Black women are subject to a compounding of sexism and racism; that is why the Beyoncé Mass is received so differently than was the U2charist.”
Beyoncé, who has described St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston as her “home,” has been known to represent a wide array of religious experiences. She sang “Ave Maria” on her 2008 “I Am … Sasha Fierce” album. She evoked Divine Mother imagery from various religious traditions during her 2017 Grammys performance. And, in February, she was backed by a choir dressed in white as she sang “XO” and “Halo” at the memorial service for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
Just as there is an eclectic range in how Beyoncé has expressed religious themes in her music and performances, an array of people stood in line — some for two hours — to get the free tickets to the Millennium Stage performance that was part of the Kennedy Center’s two-week Direct Current programming focused on contemporary culture.
Marjorie Sims. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Marjorie Sims, a black woman from Washington who is a Zen Buddhist and a Beyoncé fan, was among those in line curious about how a theologian would view Beyoncé’s music from a religious perspective.
“I thought that it was a nice blend of the right combination of Beyoncé songs and the message, and I just appreciated the message around the Scripture focused on Esther,” said Sims, 60, a managing director at a Washington think tank. “Because Beyoncé has such a diverse kind of range of songs, I think they all really worked. They were all the right kind of spiritual ones.”
Johanna Lemieux, a white woman from Springfield, Virginia, who was raised Catholic but is no longer a churchgoer, was so excited about the event that she bought two T-shirts and a bag emblazoned with the same “Won’t SHE do it?!”phrase that was worn by the leaders onstage.
“I’m not a churchgoing person and that was a message for everybody,” said Lemieux, 37, an information technology staffer at a small financial firm. “It was very welcoming. It was very inclusive. It speaks to everybody and I feel like that’s a really important message.”
Johanna Lemieux. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Every Beyoncé Mass is a little different. This one, due to coronavirus concerns, did not have its usual Communion service. It instead featured the rocks, which Norton told participants to use to “lay down the weight of our human failure and walk away with the grace of God.”
Just as she encouraged people to pass the peace in whatever way they felt comfortable — from elbow bumps to bows — Norton concluded by asking the Kennedy Center congregation, rich or poor, churchgoer or not, to keep lifting themselves up along with others.
“We have broken enough in this world. We have done enough harm and damage but I believe, through Christ Jesus, that we can start over,” she said. “Go into the world and do the good thing that God is calling us to. Go in peace and go with God.”