Ode

    March 2007
    Preaching to the choir—and beyond

Reverend Billy has performed exorcisms at America’s biggest shopping mall and baptized children in a Toys “R” Us parking lot. He has also done time in the Mickey Mouse jail at Disneyland—for crashing the annual Disney Christmas parade.

He is a preacher of a most unusual sort. Part hell-raiser, part windmill-chaser, Rev. Billy spreads the gospel that our growing addiction to shopping has profound consequences for people and the planet. His sermons raise the moral dimension of seldom-asked questions. What labour and resources went into the creation of that product? What sorts of social structures are we supporting by throwing down our cash for that shiny new thing?

While Rev. Billy does have a license to perform weddings in New York state, he is not an ordained minister. Raised by strict Dutch Reformed parents in the Midwest, Bill Talen describes himself as “a traumatized Christian.” He had a background in theatre before donning a vintage white tux and hitting the sidewalks of New York City’s Times Square in 1995 as Rev. Billy to confront the evils of consumerism, Disneyfication and sweatshop labour.

“Retail interventions” soon followed. He and his “Stop Shopping Choir” began showing
up at cathedrals of consumerism such as the Disney Store, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Victoria’s Secret, to witness for a more fair and sustainable economy. He’s seen success as part of campaigns to keep Wal-Mart out of New York City and to convince Victoria Secret’s parent company Limited Brands to stop clear-cutting old growth and endangered forests for its more-than-a-million-a-day catalogues—the majority of which end up immediately in the trash.

Rev. Billy and his choir, many of whom are PKs (preachers’ kids), have now established the Church of Stop Shopping in Brooklyn’s St. Mark’s Church where they regularly perform on Sunday evenings—for crowds that can top 500. “Post-religious and pre-spiritual” is how he describes the services.

His book What Would Jesus Buy? is due out in March 2007 and a docudrama (produced by Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame) featuring the Church of Stop Shopping’s cross-country “super mall” tour will be released in theatres just in time to slow down shopping for the 2007 holiday season. The film is subtitled “Rev. Billy Saves Christmas
from the Shopacalypse.” Change-a-lujah!