Mayo 19, 2009

Tesco say your prayers: Rev Billy is on his way

Tesco say your prayers: Rev Billy is on his way
Photo by Fred Askew Photography
By Sarah Maslin Nir
To some, Reverend Billy is a messenger of the revealed word. To others, he’s a simple blasphemer. The preacher, otherwise known as Bill Talen, 59, hails from South Dakota and Minnesota, smack dab in America’s heartland. He’s a dead-ringer for the actor Kurt Russell, albeit with a towering bleach-blond pompadour and a penchant for electric-blue leisure suits.

In the guise of an American tele-evangelist, Talen has been an anti-consumerism activist for ten years, raining down fire and brimstone on Starbucks and Disney. This month, with his gospel choir called the Church of Life After Shopping, he’s launching a UK tour and has set his sights on another sinner: Tesco, say your prayers.

“We sing against the monoculture,” says Talen, whose homilies address the dangers of “the Shopocalypse”. “Consumerism has shut us down. We’ve been habitual buyers and it’s made us less and less curious about the world.”

Talen, aided by his wife Savitri D, aims to alert us about our unwitting submission to corporate agendas through song and dance. Oh, and through the occasional midday exorcism of a Starbucks till. Or maybe a sermon amid racks of merchandise, like the one that got him arrested in Nottingham in 2003 on his previous visit. He was railing against the commodification of childhood wonder in a Disney store.

Talen, who says he’s been locked up at least 25 times, wasn’t always an activist. “I was raised by right-wing Christians,” he says, who were “violent, claustrophobic. They are war people, they are not peace people.” Drawn to beatniks and punks, Talen fled to California where he took up acting and shied away from religion until a mentor, a priest-cum-actor named Sidney Lanier, convinced him to use his talent to heal the world.

“The most effective activists in our culture come from backgrounds of faith,” Talen says, citing Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu. Talen calls preaching “an American vocal tradition. It’s like hip-hop, it’s like auctioneering, it’s like talking and singing at the same time.”

By impersonating a tele-evangelist, Talen says he can tap into the listeners’ connection to spirituality and deliver a very different message. Savitri D says: “Our salvation is not Heaven, it is not the second coming of JC; it’s a world that makes sense.”

The UK tour will be a gospel/musical/comedy extravaganza but also a fact-finding mission for the couple about successful activism. “We’ve got a lot to learn from the UK. They have led the way in fair trade and the environment,” Savitri D says. The pair will work with Tescopoly, a group that protests at what it sees as Tesco’s smothering of local business. The couple think that the “level of awareness” is higher here and that more people will get the joke.

It perhaps seems counterintuitive but many churches have embraced Talen. When Morgan Spurlock, the anti-McDonald’s activist of Super Size Me fame, produced a documentary in 2007 about Talen’s work called What Would Jesus Buy? churches across America held screenings and rallied around his cause.

“It’s blasphemous,” Spurlock says, but not how you think. Talen blasphemes only against capitalism. “Billy’s core message and the core message of Christians is the same: ‘Things can be better; we have lost track’,” he says. “It’s a moral belief.”

Spurlock came across Talen doing an exorcisms of tills when the former was a student in Greenwich Village. Both lived on New York’s Lower East Side, once a warren of the neighbourhood shops now being pushed out by big business.

Watching an evening choir rehearsal in a SoHo rehearsal space in New York is a vivid experience. Savitri D, with her wild, dark mane of curls and intense eyes, is leading an international group of men and women in an eccentric vocal warm-up. Many of them are what she calls “PKs” — preachers’ kids — misfits who as adults are still recovering from traumas their religions inflicted on them. She leads the group in a series of yelping warbles, then urges them to hop around the room and smack their bottoms. They sing Sinatra’s New York, New York but with anti-consumerist lyrics penned for a music video heralding Talen’s latest endeavour: he’s running for Mayor of New York.

The night before, in the same SoHo room Talen had launched his campaign. Most New Yorkers are inured to anything. But few of the drivers stuck in traffic that night expected the roadblock on Lafayette Street to be dancers throwing shapes in the middle of the road. In the middle of the jiggling mass stood Reverend Billy, megaphone in hand. His platform is “The rise of the neighbourhoods” and aims to wrest commerce — and souls — back from big business.

His campaign manager, Austin Osmer, says Talen is not demanding that people be perfect; he buys Nike himself. “We don’t want people to go around wearing hair- shirts and sandals made out of tyres. We just want them to live for themselves and their fellow citizens, not for corporations.”

“While it may not be a call to action. It plants a seed of dissent, ” Spurlock says of the UK tour. “If you can make a person laugh, then you can make a person listen.”

The UK Shopocalypse Tour, May 20- June 2;
Related Campaign: 2009 UK Shopocalypse Tour