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Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

The Church of Stop Shopping is an activist performance group based in New York City, led by Reverend Billy, the stage name of Bill Talen. Using the form of a revival meeting, on sidewalks and in chain stores, Reverend Billy and his gospel choir exhort consumers to abandon the products of large corporations and mass media; the group also preaches a broader message of economic justice, environmental protection, and anti-militarism, protesting sweatshops and the Iraq War. Though it continues its street theatre activities, the Church has also appeared on stage and has toured internationally.

Origin of Reverend Billy

Bill Talen is a Dutch-American Calvinist Minnesota-born actor who moved to Staten Island New York from San Francisco in the late 1990s, where he had originally created a character that was a hybrid of street preacher and televangelist called Reverend Billy. This character was performed in various San Francisco alternative theater venues, where Talen had earned a considerable reputation as both a performer and a producer (Life On The Water theater, the Solo Mio Festival, Writers Who Act, etc.). In New York, Talen began appearing as Reverend Billy on street corners in Times Square, near the recently opened Disney Store. Times Square had recently begun its transformation from a seedy but lively center of small-time and sometimes illicit commerce—and also of New York theatre—to a more gentrified and tourist-friendly venue for large companies like Disney and big-budget stage productions like The Lion King. Whereas other street preachers chose Times Square because of its reputation for sin, Reverend Billy's sermons focused on the evils of consumerism and advertising—represented especially by Disney and Mickey Mouse—and on what Talen saw as the loss of neighborhood spirit and cultural authenticity in Rudolph Giuliani's New York.

Talen's chief collaborator in developing the Reverend Billy character was the Reverend Sidney Lanier. A cousin of Tennessee Williams with an interest in avant-garde theater, Lanier was then the vicar of St. Clement's, an Episcopal church in Hell's Kitchen that doubled as a theatrical space, where Talen was working as house manager. Lanier encouraged Talen, who was suspicious of religious figures after rejecting the conservative Protestantism of his youth, to study radical theologians and performers; of these, Talen credits Elaine Pagels and Lenny Bruce as particularly strong influences. Though Talen does not call himself a Christian, he says that Reverend Billy is not a parody of a preacher, but a real preacher; he describes his church's spiritual message as "put the Odd back in God."

Each year, Reverend Billy and his choir attends and performs at the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

The Church of Stop Shopping is a non-profit organization that includes Talen, theatrical director Savitri Durkee (who is married to Talen), a 34-member choir, and an 8-piece band.


After beginning as a solo performer, Reverend Billy soon acquired a loose organization that assisted in his in-store actions. These were originally centered around the Disney Store. In one early action, Talen and his associates pretended to be shopping at the store and talking on non-functional cell phones, carrying on increasingly loud conversations about the evils of Disney and its products; once the ruse was discovered, Reverend Billy began preaching to the actual consumers until the police removed him from the store.

The Starbucks coffeehouse chain became another frequent target of the Church's actions, due to perceptions of its displacement of local small businesses, unfair labor practices including union busting, and its role in creating what Talen calls a fake Bohemia.

On December 25, 2005, Reverend Billy and his choir performed an action at Disneyland. He led the choir down Main Street, U.S.A. singing anti-Disney and anti-shopping songs. After ignoring requests from park security to cease, an on-site Anaheim Police officer attempted to intercede and was ignored. Reverend Billy was then arrested for trespassing and resisting an officer; his choir left peacefully after that.

Reverend Billy and his choir traveled to Washington, DC in March 2007 to participate in an action against the war in Iraq, "Don't Buy Bush's War," organized by Code Pink Women for Peace, where they roamed the halls of the U.S. Congress preaching and singing their anti-war message. No arrests were made.

The cross-country journey that Reverend Billy and his choir made in the month prior to Christmas 2005, culminating in his arrest at Disneyland, is depicted in a documentary, titled What Would Jesus Buy? produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. The film was screened at the Silverdocs international film festival in June 2007.

"What Would Jesus Buy?" is also the title of Reverend Billy's new book, subtitled "Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse," released in March 2007. The anti-consumerism message in the film has hindered its widespread distribution: in an interview published by Reuters, film director Rob VanAlkemade claimed that "major distributors have backed away because Wal-Mart pushes half of their DVDs."

On June 29, 2007, Billy was arrested on charges of harassment in Union Square, Manhattan while reciting the First Amendment to police officers through a megaphone, during the monthly bike ride Critical Mass. On July 2, 2007, Billy revisited the scene of his arrest, accompanied by a choir who sang a hymn version of the amendment.

On July 7th and 8th, 2007 Billy hosted an international conference in Iceland organized by the non-profit organization saving iceland (external link: Saving Iceland) to protest heavy industry in Iceland and globally.

On July 4th, 2008 he met with members of the Granny Peace Brigade and Code Pink with special guest Lawyer Norman Siegel at Strawberry Fields to recite the Bill of Rights.

September 7th, 2008 the group was on hand in Coney Island to perform the Last Rites for Astroland. The theme park was a cause they had rallied behind all year causing them to be nominated King Neptune and Queen Mermaid of the Mermaid Parade.

On September 18th, 2008 Billy was arrested again in Union Square Park, NYC (Despite the fact the last charges against him were dropped by the NYPD for an arrest at the very same spot). This time the group was protesting Harvest in the Square an event sponsored by Danny Meyer and the Union Square Partnership a supposed non-profit that has its eyes on the Union Square historical pavilion to be developed as a restaurant. Groups fighting to keep the park public along side the Reverend are Union Square Not For Sale and Union Square Community Coalition

Sample Lyrics

(words by Bill Talen, music by William Moses)

Mickey Mouse in baby’s bed
Big eyes big ears a bursting head
When baby screams the money flows
When baby dreams a soul is sold

Who’s expected who’s outside?
Baby sleeps but cannot hide
The doorknob turns we cannot move
Oh no! the toy we can’t refuse

Killer logo in baby’s house
On daddys shoes on momma’s blouse
On sisters breath on brothers sweats
On toys on bombs on TV sets

How can you raise a child?
How can you raise a child
The oceans rise and the sky is wild

And now we shop for air
And now we shop for air
We make a life and we end it there

Baby baby baby baby wutcha buyin?
Eyes go here eyes go there
Too late to cry – buyer beware
Baby baby baby baby wutcha buyin?

The products meet in the childrens’ ward
What do you think they’re waiting for
The new consumer, the baby king
The one who will buy anything

Superman takes baby’s hand
Up in the sky to the ATM
Remove your cash the fun begins
Spend and spend and spend again!

How can you raise a child?
How can you raise a child
The oceans rise and the sky is wild

And now we shop for air
And now we shop for air
We start a life and we end it there

Baby baby baby baby wutcha buyin?
Eyes go here eyes go there
Too late to cry - buyer beware
Baby baby baby baby wutcha buyin?



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