Not Buying It: the Church of Stop Shopping

"Reverend Billy" says Black Friday should be "buy nothing day."

ByABC News
February 19, 2009, 7:52 AM

Nov. 25, 2007 — -- Americans are expected to spend nearly half a trillion dollars this holiday season, doing their part to boost the economy by splurging on presents for loved ones and themselves.

But as some shoppers drive themselves into debt, maxing out their credit cards and wiping out already slim savings, one man says it's time to stop.

Actor and activist Bill Talen, also known as Reverend Billy, heads the self-styled Church of Stop Shopping, which replaces more traditional beliefs with the gospel that consumerism is destroying the American spirit.

"I think, in the United States, we are addicted to shopping," Talen told ABC News, as he preached to crowds outside New York's Macy's department store on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

"Every Christmas has become that we're supposed to save the economy by shopping ourselves to death," said Talen, whose persona as Revered Billy is part performance act, part serious protest. "No. There are other ways. There is another way."

As Reverend Billy, Talen spends his days preaching on the street or protesting outside large chain stores, like Wal-Mart and Starbucks. Members of the church's "Stop Shopping Choir" and the "Not Buying It Band," dressed in colorful robes and clapping, often accompany his teachings with energetic, anti-consumerist chants.

Talen is also is the subject of a new documentary, "What Would Jesus Buy?" which tracks the efforts of the church as it tries to prevent what Talen and his followers call "shopocalypse."

"We have to slow down our consumption, now," Talen said, gesturing at the hordes of shoppers trampling down Manhattan's 6th Avenue to take advantage of this year's sales.

"The real cost is not always the sticker price," he continued. "We're using fossil fuels [at such a rate that] we can't sustain [it]. We have to stop. The Earth is telling us, we're telling each other, we have to stop."

But while personal bankruptcies in America are on the rise, Talen's message can be tough to deliver this time of year.

When ABC News asked two women in Manhattan if they would consider not shopping this season, the reverend's message did not appear to have had any effect.

"No!" one of the women said emphatically, and shook her head, one shopping bag slung over her shoulder, another in her hand. "No, no, no. Please."

Mark Vitner, an economist with Wachovia, says that, while Americans may overstretch their budget during the holiday season, to stop shopping altogether is not the answer.

"It's a paradox," Vitner told ABC News. "Saving is good, but if everyone did it, the economy would collapse."

Besides, Vitner added, shopping for the holidays is no sin.

"A lot of people don't splurge during the year," he said. "This is the only time that people do splurge. And they shouldn't feel guilty about spending money on themselves and their loved ones."

But Talen questioned the motives of those who argue spending is good for our souls, and for the nation's economy.

"We just ask ourselves, 'who is saying that?'" Talen said. "Those are the people who make their living off that economy. But we have other economies. We have local economies, we have personal economies that don't register on Wall Street's charts quite that same way."

But until his message catches on nationwide, Reverend Billy seems content saving one American soul at a time.

Turning to the two women in Manhattan, he prayed.

"We can ask the god that is not a product, the god that is not a multinational corporation ... to come into these wonderful citizens," he said, his voice rising and falling dramatically, his hands raised to the sky. "And give them the power to be careful, conscious shoppers this year."

"Amen," he continued, taking the women into his arms and hugging them tight. "Hallelujah. Praise be."

ABC News' Ron Claiborne and Christine Brouwer contributed to this report.

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