Can this fake missionary’s position on corporate greed save the world?
In his thrift-store white suit, priest’s collar, and blond pompadour, Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping looks more like Elvis than Billy Graham. He stands on the sidewalk in New York’s Astor Place, where one Starbucks stands across the street from another, with a third branch down the block. It’s what he calls “the Devil’s Triangle.”
Behind him, the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, a 38-member crew dressed in red robes, holds signs above their heads—the Starbucks logo with a red line through it. “Take us to church, Reverend!” screams one.
Reverend Billy begins his sermon. “A number of us just returned from Kenya. The birthplace of civilization—the birthplace of coffee,” he intones, playing his voice like a trombone. “We had the privilege of talking to Ethiopian coffee farmers. See, they preside over very special soil which makes the best coffee in the world.”
“The coffee farmers are starving,” he continues, brow furrowing as he paces methodically back and forth on the sidewalk. “When they applied for the copyright to the names of their ancient coffees so they could lift themselves out of poverty, they were blocked by the devil.” Steam rushes out of his mouth; he looks up theatrically at the sky. “The devil, in the form of a mermaid with no nipples.”
“Lord help us,” yells a blond choir member, appearing to faint.
Passersby by aren’t sure what to think, but they stop and watch. A line of photographers and video cameras lends the spectacle an air of legitimacy. And within minutes a crowd of 100 people has gathered.
With tactics like these, Reverend Billy’s crusade has slowly gained momentum over the span of a decade. But this year, progress seems to be coming much faster: Victoria’s Secret announced in December that they will bow to the church’s demand to cease using pulp from endangered rainforests in their catalogues. And Stop Shopping is the subject of What Would Jesus Buy? a new documentary by Morgan Spurlock, the man who sacrificed his body in Super Size Me. The film premieres at South By Southwest on March 11, and its production company is hoping for a nationwide release next December.
When I meet Reverend Billy, aka Bill Talen, before the Starbucks rally, he is at a farmers’ market with his wife, Savitri D., the church’s second-in-command. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a brown leather wallet to pay for a carton of eggs, a transaction I note with mild suspicion.
“We want to make a distinction between ‘shopping’ and buying things of value from someone you can talk to,” Reverend Billy explains. He doesn’t necessarily want you to grow your own food, hand-sew your clothes, or smell like a hippie. He just wants you to support local businesses over huge corporations.
“Multinationals dominate our neighborhoods, our lives, our government, the way we think, our ideas of happiness,” says Reverend Billy. “We’re trying to get people to stop running their lives by commodified behavior. Prosperity isn’t what we’ve been told it is—it’s laughing, singing, and dancing.”
He swings into preacher mode, his voice welling up from deep in his belly. “We live in a sea of identical details. We have to resist temptation. But we all sin,” he says.
Bill Talen’s relationship with religion has always been complicated. He grew up in a Calvinist family in Minnesota. “Calvinists believe in predestination—that God decides before you’re born whether you’ll be spending eternity with the lord or gnashing your teeth in hellfire,” he says. “I was 7 years old hearing this in Sunday school, and I’m going, ‘But … noooo.'”
A decade later, Talen was selling encyclopedias in New Orleans. “I came to this church and it was just rocking,” he says. “I wandered in, stood in the front row and went nuts. All these grandmothers were fainting. I remember thinking, ‘This is where God is.'”
But Talen didn’t head straight to the nearest theological seminary. Instead, he was drawn to acting and began participating in small productions in San Francisco. After one show, an Episcopal minister named Sidney Lanier, who had created a theater group in his Times Square church, approached him with a suggestion. “You have a prophetic quality to your voice,” said Lanier, “Why don’t you investigate preaching?”
But Talen wasn’t interested. “I’d been beat up so badly by right-wing Christians. I said, ‘Let Saturday Night Live spoof preachers. It’s not for me.'”
In 1995, after struggling to find his footing in San Francisco, Talen moved to New York. He had stayed in touch with Lanier, who offered him a job as the house manager of the American Place Theater, located inside St. Clement’s Church. Talen began studying with Lanier and attending religious services. He warmed to the idea of using the preacher model for new types of messages and eventually wrote a play about a church service gone wild. He no longer remembers the name of the play, but he remembers that it was all about audience participation, much like Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, which was popular at the time. Reverend Billy was born.
One of the models for his character was Reverend C.L. Franklin, a Detroit preacher (and Aretha’s father) who inspired many leaders of the Civil Rights era. Another was Jimmy Swaggart, the televanglist best known for being photographed with a prostitute in the ’80s. “I call him my reverse mentor,” says Reverend Billy.
It was the Giuliani era, and Times Square was transforming into a mega mall. Talen finally got fed up in 1997, and decided it was time to unleash Reverend Billy on the real world. His first mission: rushing the Disney Store. “I was so scared,” he remembers, “I didn’t think I’d get arrested.”
Over the next few years, with the help of his wife and choir director James Solomon Benn, Talen began expanding the Church of Stop Shopping. The group kicked off new campaigns—against gentrification in general, but also against Wal-Mart and Starbucks. The latter famously sent out a memo in 2002 titled, “What Should I Do If Reverend Billy is in My Store?”
“After 9/11, people would start talking to me with this look in their eye,” says Reverend Billy. “I realized that they wanted to be pastored to. My responsibility became more than to just entertain.”