N.Y. Activist Preaches Deliverance From Retail

The Rev. Billy prays with his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir near Times Square early in the morning of Black Friday, or what he has dubbed Buy Nothing Day. N.Y. shoppers did not heed his call.
The Rev. Billy prays with his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir near Times Square early in the morning of Black Friday, or what he has dubbed Buy Nothing Day. N.Y. shoppers did not heed his call. (Photos By Robin Shulman -- The Washington Post)

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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 24, 2007

NEW YORK, Nov. 23 -- This time of year, the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping has a difficult ministry.

5:45 a.m. on Black Friday -- or as he calls it, Buy Nothing Day -- found him bellowing his message into a megaphone outside the flagship Macy's store in Midtown Manhattan.

"Stop shopping!" he called, his voice echoing through dark streets filled with thickly bundled silhouettes with shopping bags.

People stopped and stared. And then pushed past him.

The Rev. Billy, a.k.a. the actor Bill Talen, is not an ordained minister or even a practicing Christian, but he is a true believer. He hopes to avert "Shopocalypse" and save our souls, our wallets, our communities and the planet. As a performance artist and activist, he has been preaching against consumerism since 1997, when he began delivering his gospel outside Manhattan's Disney Store.

He has achieved some recognition on his own terms. He and his flock have exorcised cash registers and staged other "interventions" in retail stores. He has been arrested dozens of times. In 2003 he was banned from all Starbucks outlets in the world, and in 2005 he was banned from Disney properties. Now Morgan Spurlock, who directed the film "Super Size Me," has produced "What Would Jesus Buy?" a "docu-comedy" about Talen's gospel now in limited theaters.

Talen -- in a blond bouffant, priest's collar and white suit, and using his best quavering, booming preacher's voice -- casts himself somewhere between parody and earnestness, a huckster and truth-teller in this country's tradition of self-proclaimed ministers.

He is also part of a movement of people toying with avoiding consumer culture. There is the Freecycle Network, a giant online swap shop where everything is free. Freegans, who try to subsist entirely on food they dig from restaurant garbage and dumpsters. There is the example of No Impact Man, a Manhattanite who lived, and blogged, during a year without cars, electricity and most consumer purchases. Some of this is chronicled in Adbusters, a Canadian, anti-consumerism magazine that back in 1992 coined Buy Nothing Day.

It began for Talen when he moved to New York in the '90s and found an eclectic, creative, edgy place being bought up by chain stores.

The only people he heard raising their voices against it were sidewalk preachers, he said. He decided to become one of them.

He watched comedians and Elvis impersonators on cable TV, read urban activists such as Jane Jacobs, and church-hopped, listening to Pentecostal and Baptist sermons. One minister offered him vocal training. Over months, he articulated a message and picked up what he calls "this kind of ability to make a vowel sail out across the air. It's not quite singing, but it's not just talking, either."

Since then, he has traveled across the country, along with his Stop Shopping choir, setting up makeshift confession booths where people can discuss their shopping sins, baptizing babies to keep them safe from consumer culture, performing weddings and even officiating at a few funerals.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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