Reverend Billy on Missionary Mall Work

Dennis Harvey November 19, 2007

It is well known among thinking folk that the U.S. is no longer a country that produces, but one that consumes — its economy driven less by manufacturing than purchasing. (You may recall that the government’s first widespread public awareness campaign after 9/11 was “America: Open for Business,” urging us all get back out there shopping.)

Advertising pushes us from earliest youth to want more, more, more stuff — little of which is still “Made in the U.S.A.,” much instead being imported to U.S. chain retailers from Third World sweatshops that pay frequently underage workers sub-living wages. Meanwhile, mom-and-pop stores that used to sustain our communities are being driven out of existence by superstores like Wal-Mart, which can afford to cut prices to the bone — but seemingly can’t afford to give its personnel decent salaries, let alone benefits.

This is depressing stuff, but Ron Van Alkemade’s documentary “What Would Jesus Buy?” makes so much bad news go down easy, thanks largely to its “star,” Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping.

Often accompanied by his 40-member Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, the Rev. is part Elvis, part Elmer Gantry, and all about getting you to resist the addictive forces of the gathering “shopocalypse.” His flock stages musical-comedy protests at our temples of corporate commerce, variably delighting and bewildering shoppers, while often getting a much less benign response from store or mall security. (Among many such honors, Rev. Billy has been slapped with a restraining order barring him from all California Starbucks).

The Morgan Spurlock-presented doc charts the Reverend and choir on a cross-country bus tour climaxing with a protest against “false idols of the Christmas spirit” at the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland — which he says sells products made in Sri Lanka and other not-so-happy hotspots for sweatshop toil. Needless to say, Mickey isn’t all that welcoming toward these particular carolers.

Though now based in New York, Rev. Billy himself — a.k.a. Bill Talen — may seem familiar to some Bay Area residents. Before he got the anti-consumerist religion, he was a mainstay in S.F.‘s vibrant performance art scene of the 1980s as founder of the Solo Mio Festival, a director of the stage venue Life on the Water, and writer-actor of many well-received local shows. We checked in with the Reverend on the eve of “Jesus’” local opening.

SF360: You’ve been doing God’s work — I mean Reverend Billy’s — for how long now? How did the character first originate?

Rev. Billy: Well there were plays and monologues and cable talking-head harangues going back to the early ’90s, where a preacher kept rising and fading from view. I had a mentor-teacher named Sidney Lanier, a New Yorker from the South who knew Lenny Bruce and Tennessee Williams. He would come to my plays in San Francisco and then pull out the preacherly parts and ignore the rest. He kept saying, ‘We need a new kind of American preacher….’

SF360: Have you considered satellite choirs/congregations not based in NYC? It seems like anti-consumerism could become a nationwide trend if it were made, you know, fun.

Rev. Billy: Of course you’ve recited our fondest hope. We have a ten-show television series that will go on Free Speech Television on the Dish Network in early 2008. But we’re not leaving NYC, this is our home. Our politics are based on neighborhood-defense, and the homes of the choir are here. Our stories in the songs and sermons come from what’s happening ‘on the corner.’

SF360: The malls, chain stores, corporate HQ’s and theme parks your flock infiltrates in ‘Jesus’ often have security staff hostile to protestors — even ones that amuse and entertain the patrons. What are the worst experiences you’ve had with security guards, police, customers?

Rev. Billy: The role of big box security is ill-defined. This is a ‘liminal’ neighborhood. Some are moonlighting cops, some are just kids, and we have some are retired Special Forces macho guys just home from some secret war. So we need to be careful because the responses vary from cordial to pre-emptively violent. Serbian mercenaries in a Zurich supermall were among the worst. A Wal-Mart manager in Lawrence, Kansas, is a memorable one — he citizen-arrested the entire city bus we were leaving in.

SF360: How many times has Rev. Billy been arrested? How much jail time so far?

Rev. Billy: Well we’ve lost count. It may be 50 arrests, but we try to go into slow motion, create a much better chance to get the Rev out of the backseat of the cruiser, or out of the mall-jail (mall jails are always painted bright yellow) or out of the precinct holding tank. But when I go down to the Tombs for the over-night, that’s it. I’ve done that three times this year — just recently for reciting the 1st Amendment in Union Square.

SF360: In 100 words or less, why should the average consumer stop buying goods from Wal-Mart, Disney, and other huge corporate entities that seem specially targeted by the Church of Stop Shopping?

Rev. Billy: These are sweatshop companies. It doesn’t make sense to buy a Christmas gift when there is suffering in the making of that gift. Children, this is the common sense of goodness! Knowing what companies are raising their profit margins from their labor practices is not hard to do in the age of the Internet. Wal-Mart and Disney are well-known for hiring 14 year old girls in distant, hard-to-find places. The movie presents ResponsibleShopper.Org as a source. So much of what is bad for people in the distance is bad for us too. Funny how that works. Over there is the slave labor, over here we lapse into stupid consumerism, advertising-addled and de-politicize — like tourists drifting in our own lives.

SF360: If you could pick just one save-the-planet, save-yourself piece of advice to give consumers Joe (& Josephine) Blow, what would it be?


SF360: Now that you’ve made the peroxide leap, do blonds really have more fun?

Rev. Billy: If you notice my particular blond regime, it’s as if I leaped and sort missed the bottle. I have a fitful relationship to the yellow tresses. Only when David LaChapelle took us into his warehouse in Hollywood, where we found a giant Starbucks cash register constructed for us, with shafts of God-light streaming across Broadway size stage walls…then, stunned by scale, I found myself in a plush dentist’s chair getting my hair done for ours. But do you like the poster? Is the hair nearly halo-ing?

SF360: Does Rev. Billy actually, regularly hear confessions (as in the film)?

Rev. Billy: Yes, that conversation goes on every day. Often I just confess right back at the confessor. But just talking about shopping in a low-key guilt-free way, just how have a conscience when the whole landscape conspires with its violent economy — we can help each other. I think I’ve got 70 or 80 confessions at…

SF360: Given the indictment of orgiastic name-brand, advertising-driven gizmo buying in the documentary, what would you recommend our countrymen give each other this Xmas?

Rev. Billy: Here’s a good gift, suggested a friend from Whitefield Maine this morning. ‘My gift is — I promise to listen you for as long as you believe is necessary.’ And then my friend added as an afterthought with anguish in it: ‘….That’s a hard gift for me to give, because I’m not a great listener.’ But Brother, good giving gives both ways. Change! My friend might listen better with her gift? Change-a-lujah!