He was brought up by religious conservatives before running away in his teens and going on to set up the anti-corporate Church of Stop Shopping. He is hated by America’s biggest multinationals, and Starbucks had him jailed after he ‘exorcised’ one too many of their cash registers. Sophie McAdam finds out what drives the man otherwise known as Reverend Billy.
When I call, Talen is writing a column for The Ecologist on climate change. He tells me his message is ‘shrill and apocalyptic’, and that this article is unusual. ‘For once, I’m reporting, I’m not screaming with all kinds of capital letters,’ he jokes.
And scream he can. Anyone who attends his monthly services at St Marks Church, New York City, will testify to that. A fit and healthy 56 year old, Talen is six foot, with a platinum blonde bouffant hairstyle, white suit and dog collar. At first glance, he looks like any other Christian preacher. But once the sermons begin, it becomes apparent very quickly where the differences lie.
Reverend Billy is quite literally a human parody. He has adopted the rhetoric and style of the Evangelical right to push the message of the far left. During services, the Reverend invites the congregation to throw away their credit cards and confess their consumer sins. His sermons range from the loss of individual communities by increasingly ubiquitous companies like Starbucks to the Indian children sewing Disney T shirts in dangerous sweatshops instead of going to school. The post-religious Church of Stop Shopping has grown steadily, and now has a six-piece band and 36 singers in its gospel choir.
Talen was born in Michigan in 1950 to strict Dutch Calvinist parents, and in his house, ‘God was a Republican’. Talen rebelled against this during his childhood, running away regularly and hitch hiking across America throughout his early twenties.
His alter ego was a response to what Talen calls the ‘Disneyfication of Times Square’ by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Talen was angry as he watched homeless people and other ‘undesirables’ being driven out by Giuliani’s tourist-friendly, zero-tolerance cleansing programme. But he also saw Evangelical preachers trying to save them, and he found their passion inspiring.
‘I became more and more focused through time on resisting consumerism,’ Talen explains. ‘And I thought that since people don’t go to the theatre anymore, the theatre must come to the people.’ After buying a pulpit, Talen dyed his hair and began wearing it in a quiff. He then took to the streets, shouting anti-consumerist messages into a cardboard megaphone. Reverend Billy was born.
The project became more successful when Savitri Durkee joined the church as theatrical director. They met in a theatre lift in 2000, fell in love and were married two years later. ‘Savitri has been the great presence,’ Talen says. ‘The project goes much farther out into the public mind since we partnered up.’
Reverend Billy has been a thorn in the side of multinationals such as Gap, Nike, and Disney for some time, staging what he calls ‘retail interventions’ in stores across the US. He concentrates most of his energy on the ‘inherent evil’ that is Starbucks.
These interventions usually involve him blessing customers as they lounge on the sofas sipping mochachinos, at this point still believing him to be a Christian preacher. It is only when his megaphone appears and Talen launches into a speech about poor labour practices and genetically-engineered milk that people realise their mistake, at which point the Reverend and his ‘disciples’ are usually ejected from the premises.
Talen talks about the interventions with childlike glee. ‘One is called “bump n’ grind with the buckheads,”‘ he explains excitedly.
‘You fill a Starbucks with as many people as will fit in it, and take a [ghetto] blaster among you with funky music. Then have people bury reports in their clothing, about the impoverishment of the coffee families and child mortality, and then very gradually you take your clothes off. It’s very funny,’ he chuckles, ‘and there are such big crowds the police don’t know who to arrest or how to arrest.’
In 2003, Starbucks HQ issued a memo to every coffee shop in the US, entitled ‘What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?’ Talen, who found this so amusing he used the heading as the title for his first book, continued his interventions and was eventually arrested and charged with ‘obstructing a lawfully-abiding business’.
On the day in question, Talen was tackled by ‘an ex-marine type guy’ after vaulting a Starbucks counter in an attempt to exorcise the cash register of its evils. By his own admission, the video evidence in court was ‘damning’. ‘I got the spirit, and the spirit came among me, and I flew up and danced on the counter,’ Talen says proudly.
But despite his summation speech on Starbucks practices in Guatemala and Southern Mexico, the jury verdict was unanimous, and Talen spent three days in a Los Angeles jail. He was also banned from going within 250 yards of any Starbucks on the planet, although this has not deterred him.
The Church of Stop Shopping is not simply a fight against consumerism. It is a fight against homogenisation, against economic globalisation, against poverty in the name of profit, and against unjust trade laws. It is a fight on behalf of all anti-corporate culture jammers.
‘You can start change by having three people all sat around a table with the same notion,’ Talen points out. ‘But I’m shouting in a burning house. We have a crisis in consumer America that spreads war and poverty and extinction and rising oceans. If we don’t change our consumption habits soon, we’re in for it.’
Hallelujah to that.
Bill Talen can be contacted at http://www.revbilly.com
Published in CorporateWatch magazine, Summer 2005