Stop Shopping and Save Your Soul?
“Stop shopping — start living!” chanted the crowd as Reverend Billy reached out to hold the head of a man in the audience, shook violently and finally collapsed back onto his red-robed choir. Gospel-style singing and fire-and-brimstone sermons filled Fairchild Chapel this Tuesday afternoon as the Church of Stop Shopping relayed their anti-consumer message to a mix of students and townspeople.
Reverend Billy, a character performed by activist Bill Talen, is a loud-mouthed guy with a bleached-out pompadour whose emphatic gestures and thrift store white suit give him the appearance of a Vegas televangelist. Backed by 30 singers and musicians and trailed by a documentary crew, Reverend Billy preaches anti-consumerism in his humorous sermon spectaculars.
Reverend Billy and the Choir of Stop Shopping usually frequent New York City Starbucks, Disney Stores and Wal-Marts, preaching to customers about the evils of consumerism and large corporations.
After delivering his sermon, Reverend Billy held a prayer service at the nearby Wal-Mart construction site, lamenting the defeat of activists in the area who fought to keep Wal-Mart out of town. The prayer and singing was interrupted when three police cars came to disband the group.
In contrast to the dissent of local authorities, some of the town of Oberlin welcomed the group warmly. City council President Daniel Gardner presented Reverend Billy and the Choir of Stop Shopping with keys to the city, thanking them for coming to town.
“Transnational corporations have so much power, you just have to have some balance,” said Talen when asked why he encourages people to stop shopping. “We have to defend ourselves as individuals: free of chain stores, free of ads.”
Talen feels that by taking away the power given to corporations by consumers’ money, people can reclaim control of their own freedom of expression, as well as the democracy of the United States.
“I’m telling you democracy is not for sale, my neighborhood is not for sale!” proclaims one of the choir’s uplifting song and dance routines. While vehemently compelling the audience to stop shopping, Reverend Billy still recognized his own personal shortcomings.
“We are all sinners, and I probably have as much petroleum products in my hair as the rest of world uses, and for that I ask your forgiveness,” he said with a smile. “But I have hope. We can stop shopping when we know we have to, and I think we can!”
While living in New York City in Times Square in the mid-90s, Talen developed the character Reverend Billy in response to what he saw as the corporate takeover of his neighborhood.
“Times Square had been culturally cleansed by police who sent local characters to shelters or jail and by Disney who pushed out small vendors,” Talen said. “There was no longer any forum for self-expression. The only people still expressing their heartfelt individual feelings were the sidewalk preachers. The appropriation of our right-wing iconic character [the fundamentalist Christian preacher] now seems like this strategy [to fight back against the right wing].”
Oberlin was the first stop on the nationwide tour of Revered Billy and the Choir of Stop Shopping on a mission to “save Christmas, and all of us, from the Shopocalypse,” as one man in the choir explained it. The Shopocalypse broadly refers to the manipulation of people by advertisements, the corruption of large corporations and the stifling of local enterprise and culture by corporate monopoly.
“The purpose of the tour is to reach audiences that both agree with us already and people who have no idea what we are talking about,” explained the trombonist of the choir, Ric Becker, recent graduate of Kinhaven Music School. “We use the image of the church in part to draw in audiences that would not normally come see us if we identified ourselves differently.” Oberlin is one of the stops on the tour where Reverend Billy and the Choir of Stop Shopping expected to be preaching to the choir. “We just want to let people know that we are here, that this is one way to spread the message that we need to stop shopping,” said Becker.
Reverend Billy was brought to Oberlin with the help of the group ShopOberlin.org.
“We were first contacted one month ago by [the Reverend’s] intern Amy Oelsner, an Oberlin student, who recommended Oberlin as the first stop on the Shopocalypse tour,” explained Grant Huling, a junior student who works with ShopOberlin.org to boost awareness of the need to support local economy.
“In addition to the tour, the Reverend and the Choir of Stop Shopping will be documenting some of the rallies for later use in a film,” said Huling.
Over the next three weeks, the group will head west in two biodiesel buses,
stopping consumers in Wal-Mart, Nordstrom and Macy’s parking lots across
the nation to share the gospel of Stop Shopping. The group will be keeping a
blog on the internet as they tour, and they encourage curious readers to contact
them at www.RevBilly.com.