Even when 60,000 Vikings fans aren't on the edge of their purple seats hoping for a game-winning miracle, U.S. Bank Stadium's proving to be a draw for the faithful to celebrate and pray.
In the past few months, the two-year-old building has played host to a concert for evangelical youth, the holiest Muslim holiday and on Wednesday, 12,000 Catholic schoolchildren celebrating mass with Archbishop Bernard Hebda. "I've been looking forward to this mass for a whole year," a smiling Hebda told the children. "How many of you believe in miracles?"
Some 70 priests draped in white robes accompanied Hebda, while many students in grades 4-8 wore their school uniforms — dark skirts or pants with red, green, white or blue shirts.
The Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE) produced the event for the second time and for the first time at the stadium. In 2016, the mass was held outdoors at CHS Field in St. Paul. This year, the gray skies and drizzle weren't a concern inside the climate-controlled stadium. "It's obviously a great venue, we thought it would leave a great impression on the students."
The aim of the event, like the other religious gatherings, was to gather in faith and build excitement that can carry into other parts of their lives and the world. In some cases, like the Muslim service, the large public event serves to welcome nonmembers in to watch or participate.
The building's size is what matters to the groups trying to welcome big gatherings of faithful. When the sun's shining, U.S. Bank Stadium bursts with light, but there's no stained glass or other religious trappings.
"What was far more important to them was to have so many people come together," said JaNaé Bates, communications director for the "Super Eid" event that brought some 34,000 people to the building for the Eid al-Adha holiday in August.
The Eid event was so well attended that two separate prayer groups were held on the turf. Organizers escorted the first group of 15,000 away while bringing in the next group of 15,000, all of them separated by gender. Bates called the operation "flawless."
She and other representatives of the religious organizations say they felt welcomed and well-tended to by the building managers and operators. The stadium, which cost $1.1 billion to build, including some $500 million from taxpayers, opened in 2016. Gov. Mark Dayton billed it as a multipurpose "people's stadium," but it remains a target for critics of the finances and ethics of professional sports.
The Vikings are the building's main tenant, but they play only 10 games a year (and up to two playoff games). Building operator SMG seeks to fill the building the rest of the year with everything from mega concerts like Metallica, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran to monster truck rallies, corporate gatherings, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.
The 'awe factor'
More major youth events are on the calendar, including the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which comes next July with an estimated attendance of 25,000. In the summer of 2021, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America youth will bring an estimated 40,000 to the building.
Like everyone else, the religious groups book the events with SMG. Their contracts aren't public. SMG pays the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the public manager, a guaranteed amount every year to act as the booker.
MSFA Chairman Michael Vekich said bringing in a variety of events, including the religious gatherings, serves to embrace both sports and the larger community. "It's a very versatile facility," he said, noting the city skyline visible out the glass doors.
"It certainly has the size and the awe factor of what we were going for," said Susan Harris, spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Pulse, a national student-led evangelical organization.
Pulse has held multiple events in the building, the largest in May featured live music and a massive pillow fight for the 45,000 in attendance. "If we can have the X Games and the Super Bowl there, then we wanted to use the stadium to share Jesus," she said.
The giant building with the jagged, glassy panels and massive doors is still new enough to widen the eyes of visitors. If the architect doesn't do it, the Vikings memorabilia does.
Two school-aged boys spotted the giant Vikings' gjallarhorn on a platform above the end zone. "Where's the guy who blows it?" one asked. Informed it was only for Vikings games, not mass, the other said, "Bummer."
Hebda invoked the purple, too, with his question about miracles. He told the students that he was at the game in January when Vikings quarterback Case Keenum launched a game-winning pass to Stefon Diggs, whose improbable touchdown became known as the Minneapolis Miracle.
The archbishop said the catch was no miracle. In the locker room after the game, he heard a buoyant Diggs say to then-offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, "Just like we practiced, Coach."
He likened faith to that football play, saying it comes from dedicated practice, day after day, over and over again. Hebda said it's about smiling at someone, sharing your Doritos — or broccoli — at lunch or helping a struggling classmate.
One bit Hebda didn't mention was the name of that Keenum-Diggs play that won the game against the New Orleans Saints: "Buffalo right, Seven Heaven."