What Would Jesus Buy?

The Rev. Billy speaks loudly and carries a big bullhorn
Fred Askew

According to the Census Bureau, there are over 46,000 shopping malls in the United States. Minnesota, of course, is home to the biggest mall of them all, and on a recent Sunday afternoon, as holiday shoppers drifted about in a Cinnabon-induced stupor, the New York-based Reverend Billy and the members of his Church of Stop Shopping, accompanied by local followers, strode purposefully through the north entrance. Wearing red,white, and blue choir robes, the group appeared to more of the Mall of America's scheduled entertainment until they stepped onto a stage and raised their voices in a joyful chorus: "Pack the malls with folks with money, fa la la la la, la la la la!/'Tis the season to be dummies, fa la la la la, la la la la!" The Reverend exhorted the gathering crowd to shun Starbucks, the Disney Store, the Gap, and consumerism in general.

Amazingly, mall security was nowhere in sight. So the Church of Stop Shopping took a tour of the mall's first floor, chanting "Start Living, Stop Shopping!" and handing out leaflets. They rode up and down a bank of escalators, singing heartily and wrapping up the occasional shopper in their cinematic spectacle. On the second floor they entered an Abercrombie & Fitch and bounced happily to the store's mood-setting techno music. The young employees flitted about nervously, and security arrived to escort the triumphant congregation back to their buses. Amidst hugs, Reverend Billy proclaimed, "We definitely got the message into the devil's lair!"

The message, of course, is about more than cutting up your credit cards, although that's not a bad idea. During a performance at Sabathani Community Center earlier in the day, Reverend Billy asked the assembled to "take a moment and consider who and what you're affecting by making your purchase." The Church of Stop Shopping is on a cross-country bus journey to save Christmas from the "shopocalypse," ponder "What would Jesus buy?," and argue that we are not the consumers, we are the consumed--by overwhelming debt, by relentless advertising, by a fear-mongering government that tells us to shop or else the terrorists have won. And after surviving a terrifying accident with a tractor-trailer truck on the Ohio turnpike, the group has an even greater commitment to its calling.

The Reverend is the creation of Bill Talen, an artist with Minnesota roots who spent several years running Life on the Water, a San Francisco performance space that closed in 1993, before ending up in New York. Director Savitri D. aids in his efforts. During an interview at the Mayday Café that continued at K. Simone Salon (to restore a golden luster to his trademark pompadour), Talen explains the group's purpose, which falls somewhere in the continuum between performance and protest. "Everything around us--experiences, objects, loved ones--is mediated," says Talen. "You get lazy, victimized by a consumerized politeness. We're exploring that."

Inspired to action while living in Hell's Kitchen and witnessing the 1990s "cleansing" of Times Square by Mayor Rudy Giuiliani and the Disney Corporation, Talen, who was working at the American Place Theatre, decided to pick up where the ousted sidewalk preachers left off. He donned his catering tuxedo, invested in a pine pulpit, and became "fascinated with preaching. I was raised by crazy Dutch Calvinists but I didn't want to spoof Christians." In a way, he was "appropriating right-wing icons, snake-oil salesmen, the revivalist going from town to town." This early desire to save his neighborhood's personality soon evolved into a bigger mission.

Although some may be confused by Reverend Billy's message (like the wise guy who shouted out, "Can I start shopping again?" as the Church members exited the mall), he clarifies that he doesn't target small, independent business owners and that shoppers can learn to be more than zombies with Coach wallets. "I'm against big boxes and chains," he says. "The notion of resisting consumption is something many well-meaning Americans can't imagine. But I feel we've reached some sort of tipping point. It's the war, it's the ice caps melting, it's the outsourcing. It's such an emergency at this moment. I do get impatient."

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