Familiar in his clerical collar, cream-colored suit and dyed-blond pompadour, the Rev. Billy has spent much of the last decade parading through the streets of Manhattan, shouting through a megaphone messages such as: “Mickey Mouse is the anti-Christ!”
Accompanied by a robed choir belting out gospel songs, the Rev. Billy condemns the “Disneyfication” of Times Square and warns that Wal-Mart is part of the “consumer axis of evil.”
To passersby, the preacher who shouts: “Can I get a change-a-lujah?” might seem like just another colorful character in New York’s backdrop. But the Rev. Billy does not promote religion and he is not actually a reverend. He is the alter ego of Bill Talen, an activist, actor and writer who has become nationally known as Rev. Billy, a character inspired by televangelists, for his fight against consumerism and big corporations.
At the end of June, police arrested the Rev. Billy in Manhattan’s Union Square on suspicion of harassment after he repeatedly recited the 1st Amendment through a megaphone during a bicycling rally. His arrest sparked outcries from supporters who said his free-speech rights had been violated.
“Rev. Billy has a 1st Amendment right to recite the 1st Amendment,” said Norman Siegel, former head of the New York American Civil Liberties Union and attorney for Talen, who has called for the charges to be dismissed.
Video of Talen being handcuffed was posted on YouTube. After his release from jail, he criticized police for violating his rights and took his moment in the spotlight to bring new attention to his crusade against megastores, consumerism and gentrification.
“We’re addicted to shopping,” said Talen, in an interview at an independently owned East Village cafe. It’s near St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, where his congregation, the Church of Stop Shopping, holds services.
“Don’t go shopping in a big-box store if you can help it,” he said. “Don’t go to a chain store if you can help it. Those are sweatshop products. Those are union-busting companies.”
Big businesses targeted
Talen used to live in the East Village, paying about $400 a month for rent. But he said he was forced to move to Brooklyn as rent in the neighborhood climbed to $2,000 a month. He pointed to a Chase Manhattan Bank across the street from the church.
“That used to be the Second Avenue Deli, with the Yiddish Walk of Fame in front of it,” he said, noting there was another Chase branch around the corner. “I’m embarrassed that’s there.”
Though many admire Talen’s passion, his critics -- including corporations that he targets and customers who shop there -- say it is unrealistic to ask the public to stop shopping at their favorite stores. Others complain that the Rev. Billy’s dramatic protests, which sometimes include barging into stores with his bullhorn, are disruptive and don’t contribute to meaningful discussion or debate about the issues.
Talen’s mission to curb consumerism began in 1997, when he felt that megastores and corporations were overrunning Manhattan streets where family-owned shops and restaurants used to be. Meanwhile, he said, “poor people, eccentric people, vendors, people of color” were being priced out of the neighborhoods they had lived in for years to make room for wealthier people and businesses where they shopped.
Talen bought a pulpit from a thrift store and planted himself in front of the Disney store in Times Square, just as the area was beginning to transform into the glitzy commercial center of the city that it is now. He delivered sermons in a Southern accent denouncing big businesses.
“At first it may have been a parody,” said Talen, “and you probably could have taken it right out of ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
But Talen said he believed in his message and it resonated with people. As his following grew, he met Savitri Durkee -- now his wife. She also came from a theater and arts background and had grown up in a utopian commune. He was raised a Dutch Calvinist in the Midwest, a faith he rejected as a teenager.
He and Durkee partnered in writing political theater featuring the Rev. Billy, which he performs with his choir and band.
“It resembles religion in certain ways,” she said. “We have a regular group of people who come to our shows. They are exactly like a congregation and our relationship to them is very much like a congregation. The expectation in the room is a prayerful one, a hopeful one.”
In his book, “What Would Jesus Buy?” the Rev. Billy offers prayers and songs: “We believe in making more than money. Beyond big debts there’s a super value. A Wal-Mart crushed by a great green storm, a new town rising from the logos to be born.”
Talen’s work has been captured by producer Morgan Spurlock (of “Super Size Me”) who followed the Rev. Billy and his entourage -- including a 35-member choir and band -- as they traveled on two biodiesel-fueled buses across the country in late 2005 for a soon-to-be-released film. Among the stops: Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A., where Talen was arrested on Christmas Day.
Another frequent target of the Rev. Billy’s is Starbucks -- a judge has barred him from coming within 250 yards of the businesses in California.
In a statement, Starbucks spokeswoman Bridget Baker said the company was aware of the Rev. Billy and his criticisms. “We understand that activists use many vehicles to express their opinions,” she said, adding that Starbucks has a record of social responsibility.
Talen, who often takes his performance on the road, remains undeterred. He keeps financially afloat with donations and the sale of his book and CDs.
He traveled to Iceland last week to take his message to a conference on saving the country’s landscape from heavy industry. When he returns to New York, he is scheduled to perform his anti-consumerism production, the Rev. Billy’s Hot and Holy Highline Revival.
“We have humor inside our prayers, inside our hymns,” he said last week, his voice shifting into his sermon style as he recited a line he has told tourists at Times Square:
“I want you to take your little family away from this den of iniquity!”