By Najib Aminy
The most expensive item the Reverend of the Church of Stop Shopping has is an espresso machine imported from Italy, which was given as gift. “It’s taking over our life,” jokes Savitri Durkee, director of the Church of Stop Shopping and wife of the Reverend. “It’s the fanciest thing we have. It’s fancier than our car.”
Entering their second-floor Brooklyn apartment blocks away from Prospect Park, books upon books covered the walls with no television or Christmas tree in sight, only a laptop with a sticker of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger covering the Apple logo. “I don’t get him too much, is he a Democrat or is he a Republican? He is confusing,” said Durkee.
His voicemail recording leaves callers with a “cellphonelujah,” and his message urges listeners to “stop shopping.” Emulating what he calls an iconic, toxic figure in American history, Bill Talen puts on a white dinner jacket, slacks, a black-tee, and a $5 priest’s collar and becomes Reverend Billy.
Hard to miss, the six foot, three inch reverend from Minnesota, who is usually accompanied by his not-for-profit gospel choir, treads Wall Street to Main Street, preaching economic justice, environmental protection and protesting sweatshops, among other topics. “It is really hard to generalize about what is going on,” said Talen. “Our role from day-to-day is changing so much. Our role is changing, but the world is changing.”
Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping has waged crusades against multinational corporations including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Starbucks Co., Victoria’s Secret and the Walt Disney Company. Armed with a 35-member choir, a large cardboard megaphone and a message, Talen goes into these stores to perform “exorcisms” on cash registers in what he calls “retail interventions.”
Protesting with out the picket signs and angry mob, Talen and his church practice an integration of comedic performance protesting. Talen began going into “big box” stores such as Disney in 1997 where he and his followers would pose as customers chatting on their phones, becoming increasingly louder as they addressed the corporate abuses by Disney. “It was very unusual, it was not the same thing as protestors chaining themselves to Mickey Mouse,” said Durkee. “‘You mean that person over there can be doing a political action?’ It captures the imagination in a certain way.”
Though most preachers flocked to Times Square for its notoriety of sin, Talen spoke out against the gentrification and removal of locally owned businesses. “Back then Times Square was not where you would take your 10-year-old neice from Omaha, but a place like that getting cleansed is very unsettling,” said Durkee. Talen witnessed his friends and their businesses being removed by corporations, ultimately creating an outside shopping mall. “I was losing friends, my friends in the neighborhood were getting swept up into jails, shelters and God knows where by Giulliani’s police working with the Disney company,” said Talen. “Diner shops, barber shops, small independent proprietors, many who have been there for decades.”
Personally affected, Talen said he became informed that behind the Disney Store and other facets of corporations were sweatshops and various other injustices occurring. “I was preaching about the efforts to privatize Times Square,” said Talen. “And quickly I was taught by activists that everything in the Disney store was a sweatshop product.”
Raised as a Calvinist, Talen’s act progressed over time from a few people who would follow and clap with him into what it is now today, a group of followers who sing alongside and support him. “Billy was expressing something a lot of people were thinking and feeling,” said Durkee, sipping from her freshly brewed espresso. “Whenever someone starts shouting and it’s fairly true, people will stop and listen.”
While cooking an egg omelet at two in the afternoon, Talen described himself as neither a Christian or an Agnostic, but “searching.” Durkee, who comes from an Islamic background said that they both were raised in fundamentalist beliefs. “We have an objection to fundamentalism,” said Durkee. Walking from the kitchen back to living room wooden picnic-styled table, Talen said, “The biggest, most powerful church in the world is the church of consumerism.” The figure both Durkee and Talen look to is Jesus, and, as a result, have gain popularity amongst American Christians.
Talen has appeared on numerous television interviews, published two books and recorded two albums, as well as starred in What Would Jesus Buy, a documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock about the Church of Stop Shopping and the effects of consumerism. Certainly eye-catching, Talen walks a fine line between getting one’s attention and having them listen to his message. “That is our device, not the only device but it has been fairly affective,” said a much relaxed Talen. “Some people accept it and some reject but at this point it is reasonable to say that our popularity is allowing us to have some impact.”
Exercising his first amendment rights, Talen has been arrested over fifty times across the country, and is banned from every Starbucks coffee shop. “Union Square? I get arrested there every month,” joked Talen. Durkee worries about Talen at times, but is comforted by what she said is “a fostered community of fifty people who are together every week and take risks with the police every week.”
Durkee describes the Church as a group of people with the same ideas expressing their views artistically and comically. Jumping right into the Stop Shopping choir, bass singer Ben Cerf, of Manhattan, said he was attracted by the comedic approach of Reverend Billy and the message that followed it. “It was protesting without a chain, and funny at the same time,” said Cerf. “And it wasn’t too religious either, more along the lines of non-denomination.”
Adhering to Talen’s message, soprano singer Stefani Peika, of Brooklyn, has turned from shopping to baking. “I’ve definitely curbed my shopping immensely. I bake more and that’s what I give out as gifts,” said Peika. “I go all out.” With her choir members chatting it up outside Dixon Place, Manhattan, Peika affirmed that Talen is serious about his job. “He is a very passionate activist and practices what he preaches.”
As choir director and Adminstrative director of St. Mark’s Church of Bowery New York, James Solomon Benn has commended Talen’s work ethic. “He is a work-a-holic,” said Benn, laughing. “He has to be, it’s his day job.”
As the result of a weakening economy and an increase in unemployment, Talen’s advice for this holiday is to stop shopping. Talen’s definition of shopping is simply buying what is unnecessary. “Buying what you don’t need is not a neutral act,” said Talen. “It has bee defined by consumer culture as the thing that raises world culture—but it is the opposite. Buying what you don’t need deprives people of what they do need.”
Advising Americans to become consciously aware of the true value of an item, Durkee said the Valley Stream incident, in which a store employee was trampled to death by crazed shoppers, served as a window into America’s own ignorance. “We don’t know there is violence among the range of consumerism,” said Durkee. “Violence and death comes from far away where consumer goods are made—American shoppers are protected from this violence.”
Talen blames this notion of price value to the marketing campaigns and contribution of commercial journalists who protect Americans from the truth of consumerism. “We see as far as the product, we don’t think the product has any history, any natural resources, any labor.” That is why Talen and Durkee urge Americans to buy locally, even if that means spending a little more, and to support horizontal investments that benefit local communities.
This holiday season, Talen and Durkee said they hope Americans will realize the true meaning of the holidays, specifically Christmas. “The original notion of Christmas was to shake us up,” said a more serious Talen. “It is an incitement to give gifts, have shared experiences with loved ones, and teach us peace. This is all completely lost with Santa Claus.”
Talen’s neigborhood was decorated with multiple lawn ornaments of Mickey Mouse dressed as Santa Claus. Pointing this to be one of many examples of how Christmas has been exploited by corporations, Durkee asked jokingly, “You think we should get a BB gun?” To which Talen responded, “We pioneered that concept. The conflation of Santa and Mickey as Mickey Claus,” mockingly adding, “I want to take credit for it, the image of Mickey Claus comes from Savi and Billy.”
Working to get the message out, Talen and his choir stood outside of Macy’s on Black Friday, a day he calls, “Buy Nothing Day.” Given the economic state of the nation, both Durkee and Talen agree that Americans can learn from the situation and ultimately have a better Christmas. “When a smoker gets caught in a snow storm, he or she may take that opportunity to stop forever,” Durkee said. “Americans can choose to change their habits, or just go back.”
Walking out of his apartment, Talen said, “Now you’ve come to our home and seen at least we’re a little bit not hypocrites—though we have a thousand dollar espresso machine.”