NEW YORK – This time of year, the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping has a difficult ministry.

5:45 a.m. on Black Friday – or as he calls it, Buy Nothing Day – found him bellowing his message into a megaphone outside the flagship Macy’s store in Midtown Manhattan.

“Stop shopping!” he called, his voice echoing through dark streets filled with thickly bundled silhouettes with shopping bags.

People stopped and stared. And then pushed past him.

The Rev. Billy, aka actor Bill Talen, is not an ordained minister or even a practicing Christian, but he is a true believer. He hopes to avert “Shopocalypse” and save our souls, our wallets, our communities and the planet. As a performance artist and activist, he has been preaching against consumerism since 1997, when he began delivering his gospel outside Manhattan’s Disney Store.

He has achieved some recognition on his own terms. He and his flock have exorcised cash registers and staged other “interventions” in retail stores. He has been arrested dozens of times. In 2003 he was banned from all Starbucks outlets in the world, and in 2005 he was banned from Disney properties. Now Morgan Spurlock, who directed the film “Super Size Me,” has produced “What Would Jesus Buy?” a “docu-comedy” about Talen’s gospel now in limited theaters.

Talen – in a blond bouffant, priest’s collar and white suit, and using his best quavering, booming preacher’s voice – casts himself somewhere between parody and earnestness, a huckster and truth-teller in this country’s tradition of self-proclaimed ministers.

He is also part of a movement of people toying with avoiding consumer culture.

There is the Freecycle Network, a giant online swap shop where everything is free. Freegans, who try to subsist entirely on food they dig from restaurant garbage and dumpsters. There is the example of No Impact Man, a Manhattanite who lived, and blogged, during a year without cars, electricity and most consumer purchases. Some of this is chronicled in Adbusters, a Canadian, anti-consumerism magazine that back in 1992 coined Buy Nothing Day.

It began for Talen when he moved to New York in the ’90s and found an eclectic, creative, edgy place being bought up by chain stores.

The only people he heard raising their voices against it were sidewalk preachers, he said. He decided to become one of them.

He watched comedians and Elvis impersonators on cable TV, read urban activists such as Jane Jacobs, and church-hopped, listening to Pentecostal and Baptist sermons. One minister offered him vocal training. Over months, he articulated a message and picked up what he calls “this kind of ability to make a vowel sail out across the air. It’s not quite singing, but it’s not just talking, either.”

Since then, he has traveled across the country, along with his Stop Shopping choir, setting up makeshift confession booths where people can discuss their shopping sins, baptizing babies to keep them safe from consumer culture, performing weddings and even officiating at a few funerals.

“It’s gotten to the point where to have an experience, you have to buy something,” he said.

Christian groups have offered mixed interpretations. Brett McCracken in Christianity Today wrote: “Yes, it’s condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity.” But, he added, the Rev. Billy’s whole argument “is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity.”

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote in this month’s Sojourners magazine: “Rev. Billy is a faithful prophetic figure who stands in direct continuity with ancient prophets in Israel and in continuity with the great prophetic figures of U.S. history who have incessantly called our society back to its core human passions of justice and compassion.”

That didn’t help the Rev. Billy here Friday, on the high holy day of his church. Across the country, people camped out and lined up in the dark in front of retail stores to spend, buy, consume. In Manhattan, some people were so excited to be shopping before dawn that they ran from store to store, whooping and waving their bags.

The Rev. Billy had come with green-garbed elves who picketed and chanted (“What do we want?” “Nothing!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”) and a red-robed choir singing a sweet-voiced backup (“Stop shopping!” “Stop shopping!”).

He prayed and proselytized until he was freezing and losing his voice, but by sunup, he got not a single convert. “It’s just push, push, push,” he said.

As his choir paraded up Broadway, passersby swayed with the singers, proclaimed the Rev. Billy a man of God and agreed with him about the ravages of consumerism – “It’s true!” said Abraham Riera, 38, a dentist visiting from Honduras. “But we like it,” said Riera, entering the Toys R Us store.

AP-NY-11-23-07 1844EST


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