Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Have Evolved Yet Again

William Talen, aka Reverend Billy, with partner Savitri D., during a Feb. 6 appearance at Washington University in St. Louis (Photo by John Griswold)



When my kids were little, we used to snuggle up to watch videos before their bedtime. I joked it was rock appreciation and theory class, but the music ranged beyond The Beatles, Creedence, and Talking Heads to Schumann’s “Träumerei,” Ray Charles’ “Heaven Help Us All,” and The Gregory Brothers’ political satires. Often we watched movie clips or other short videos, such as a speech by Dr. King.

The more important part than interest or enjoyment was that one thing led to all other things by association or explanation. Our nightly ritual showed the boys how to get curious, a prerequisite for lifelong learning, as it wrapped them in closeness and enacted connection.

This was in the first decade after 9-11 (our elder son was in utero when the attacks happened), and it was obvious I also felt a need for things to keep me grounded and help me understand that odd time. I would often return to the search after I put the boys to bed and go down rabbit holes for people and events we had seen in passing.

One of these was Reverend Billy, real name William Talen, a New York City-based preacher and revolutionary performance artist with bleached-blond hair, minister’s collar, and the manner of a flamboyant televangelist. Billy started preaching in the late ’90s, outside the Disney store in Times Square, using the company as a symbol of mindless, life-destroying consumerism and unethical practices including sweatshop labor.

This act, if it was an act at all, evolved in the two decades since 9-11 to become The Church of Stop Shopping and The Stop Shopping Choir, under the direction of his creative- and life partner, Savitri D. Their gaze widened to greater anti-corporatism, then to protesting environmental abuse and warning of the effects of climate change.

“Earthalujah!” Reverend Billy shouts during his sermons, where he used to cry, “Shopalujah!”

Billy, Savitri, and their Church of Stop Shopping have been constantly active since I first saw them on YouTube. There have been thousands of performances and wild direct actions, several films and books, a podcast, and dozens of arrests, but I had never had the chance to see Reverend Billy in person.

Last week he and Savitri came to Wash U for the “Parody, Religion, and Contemporary Politics” series. A short documentary on their actions played in the auditorium, then Billy spoke, which was followed by a formal interview and audience Q&A.

Reverend Billy wore a pink minister’s suit and was barefoot. As I recall his talk, or performance, or sermon—whatever that was—I think of a former grad student who told me he does not even believe in organized religion but teared up once at a video of Billy being, for lack of a better word, genuinely Christlike in his speech. I would describe it as the feeling that you can set down a weight you have been carrying because you are hearing something that is not, at last, bullshit.

During the interview, Savitri did much of the talking, and it was gratifying to begin to understand the depth of their creative collaborations and how they complement each other. He grew up in a Midwestern, abusive, Christian Reformed Church society; she grew up in a community “dedicated to the awakening of consciousness, spiritual practice with respect for all traditions, service, and stewardship of the land,” which was cofounded by her parents in the Sangre de Christos in New Mexico.

During their interview Billy said Savitri had “come up with” what he was going to say that evening. But he began to slip into colorful rhetoric, and when he said, “We don’t know what it [this Church] is, and other people don’t either,” she said, “That’s a good one” and pointed out the phrase’s future utility. It was funny when she explained how she started dating Talen without knowing much about his altar [sic] ego, and how “when Reverend Billy came out, I said, ‘Whoa.’”

But the most moving parts of the evening were when they spoke of their church’s latest work, over the last month: caring for immigrants and refugees in their converted bank-building church in the East Village.

Migrants are arriving in New York City in record numbers—more than 13,000 in the last year or so by the actions of Texas Governor Greg Abbott alone. Mayor Adams of NYC has created a “hostile environment” for new arrivals by limiting places to sleep, they said. The latest incarnation of the spirit of the Church of Stop Shopping has been to feed, clothe, and house those they can.

“It was heartbreaking,” Billy said, “that we didn’t know how hungry they were. How they went after the bread.”

Suddenly, Billy said, “I was the fake preacher preacher of this place.” He still seemed astonished and said he had had a “severe case of the bends from self-improvement.” He told a story about sorting socks with a refugee from Ghana. They had looked back and forth to each other and to a large print of the “Big Blue Marble” photo of earth on the church wall with smiling recognition.

“Ohhh!” Billy moaned to us on a rising note. “Earthalujah!”

It is “time to be incandescent,” he said. “I am not afraid to resemble some preacher.”

“The job we have right now is moving beyond the environmental movement…and telling the truth.”

I asked Billy Talen later by email how he thought of himself in relation to his alter ego. He referred to a piece in our recent “Influence” issue, where I wrote about Eliot’s idea that the “progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” in order to “transmute the passions which are its material.”

“I’m wanting to experiment with that distancing,” he replied. “Why? Because for one thing I think it would make possible a zealotry that I haven’t achieved yet. (Always looking for that…).”


Catch Reverend Billy’s ongoing work at Earth Riot Radio, as with this episode, entitled “You Don’t Have to Love Jesus to Love Your Enemy!

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.