For more than 20 years the performance artist known as Reverend Billy — real name, Bill Talen — has been crusading against consumerism in New York and abroad. I first met him in early 2000, when I recorded his attempt to exorcise a cash register in the Disney Store on Times Square.
"People, tourists, listen to me," Reverend Billy called out in the flagship store. "Mickey Mouse is the anti-Christ. This is the devil!"
Chain stores, especially Starbucks, were the targets of the Reverend Billy's wrath as he railed against "the sea of identical details." He blamed them for destroying mom-and-pop businesses all over America. Back then, Talen was known to enlist audience members in political actions. I followed members of one throng as they marched to a Manhattan parking lot, where a billboard deemed an affront to the neighborhood was defaced using paintball guns.
After the economic meltdown in 2008, Talen shifted much of his focus to the climate crisis. The fake clergyman remains the spiritual leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, and in November celebrates 20 years of musical anti-consumerist crusading in a New York City concert with his Stop Shopping Choir. But he now refers to the Earth as "our religion." He launched a podcast, and in a video posted on YouTube he stands at a lectern in the ocean, preaching about extreme weather.
"The globe is warming and it is human-caused!" he preaches, water up to his knees. "This wet, white and blue spinning rock in space that is our home is in grave danger." As the sermon progresses, the sea does, too, rising up to his waist, then his chest.
Firms like British Petroleum now serve as the Reverend's foils. At the Tate Modern in London, he exorcized BP, which had underwritten an exhibit. Protesters dumped gooey black theatrical oil over his Elvis pompadour, and it dripped down to his trademark white suit.
"Climate change! Climate change! Climate change!" he shouted in a cavernous section of the museum, his voice ringing with urgency. Though he intentionally smeared a BP logo on a wall with the black goo, Talen was not detained. He says he's never been arrested in the U.K., though he claims police followed him constantly during a nine-city tour earlier this month.
Talen, 71, estimates he's been arrested elsewhere more than 50 times over the last two decades—always in his clerical collar, along with a leisure-suit wardrobe expanded to include shades of neon pink, orange and green. His longest jail stay was three days in California. During the pandemic, he was arrested for trespassing at a field hospital in Central Park set up by an anti-gay religious group.
Sometimes Talen keeps the clerical collar on even when he's not performing. Over the years, he's started assuming pastoral duties, presiding at hundreds of weddings, baptisms and even funerals. "People pulled me into rituals," he says. "I was at first just following what people were telling me to do, in a sort of state of amazement. But now I'm just helping wherever I can."
Talen has a knack for conveying spiritual sincerity to both his audiences and the dozens of people in the Stop Shopping Choir, says Alisa Solomon, a veteran journalist and Columbia University professor, who edited the 2011 book The Reverend Billy Project.
"There's a tendency at first to look at Reverend Billy and say, 'Oh, yeah. We know this joke: Here's a guy who's making fun of the Jimmy Swaggarts,'" Solomon says. "But he's not just making fun of the preacher role; he's making use of it. Reverend Billy is not a role that he just puts on and plays: he really is Reverend Billy."
Solomon cites Talen's wife, Savitri D. — Talen refers to her as the director of the Church of Stop Shopping — for the dramaturgical shaping of the group's public actions. "Their events are highly choreographed," Solomon notes. "There are plans for where the choir is going to stand, when they're going to sing, when Billy is going to bust out into a sermon."
That as many as 25 members of the Stop Shopping Choir continued to rehearse in Brooklyn during the pandemic, Savitri D. explains, prepared the group well for its recent British invasion. "During COVID, we met on a rooftop and sang in masks for three hours, week after week, in all kinds of weather," she says. "We were able to tour in the U.K. and be a really coherent ensemble because we never stopped singing together."
The choir was bolstered by several members of its satellite chorus in the U.K., and supported by a grant from the British Arts Council. The tour concluded in Glasgow during the COP26 Summit, though its final performance was cancelled after a member tested positive for COVID.
Some members of the Stop Shopping Choir have sung in the group for a decade or longer, according to musical director Gregory Corbino. Veterans say it's like a second family. The ensemble includes an opera singer, as well as a Tony-nominated actor, Amber Gray, who is currently starring in Hadestown on Broadway. (Gray, Savitri D. notes, is one of several participants who've met their mates in the choir.)
"Some people end up in the choir because they are deeply invested in direct action activism," says Sunder Ganglani, who has written several of the choir's most recent songs. Others simply do it for the love of singing. "There are many roads for entry," Ganglani confirms.
For Talen, activism clearly is a serious tenet of faith. As a way of minimizing his carbon footprint, he flew standby to the U.K., and donated a portion of the British Arts Council funds to a bicycle delivery group and a community garden. By all accounts, locals seemed open to listening to New York City's faux clergyman. Talen appeared on the BBC, and preached outside the British Museum dressed in a pink suit and carrying a matching pink megaphone.
His bullhorns were seized regularly by the New York Police Department when he first started railing against consumerism in Times Square during the late 1990's. It's not lost on Reverend Billy that his current mode of conveying apocalyptic environmental concern has something in common with the sidewalk preachers he lampooned all those years ago.
"I do feel that I'm getting back to some of the fire and brimstone when I shout about the fires and the floods," he says, chuckling. "It sounds a lot like those screaming Old Testament people that I was satirizing 20 years ago. And here we are with all that fire and brimstone actually happening in our lives."