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  1251: The Church of Stop Shopping, St Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, New York City, USA

rev billy

Mystery Worshipper: Pax Romana.
The church: The Church of Stop Shopping, meeting at St Mark's in the Bouwerie, 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, New York City, USA.
Denomination: The Church of Stop Shopping. St Mark's is an Episcopal church, but only the physical building was being used for this service, which was a cross between a theatrical production, a protest gathering and a Pentecostal revival. For a recent Mystery Worshipper report on St Mark's itself, click here.
The building: A beautiful old gray brick church with amazing stained glass windows. My shipmates and I were sitting right in front of the one depicting Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, before it became a British colony and was renamed New York. The sanctuary is bare. There are no pews and there is no permanent altar. Where there would normally be pews there are folding chairs. There are carpeted bleachers on both sides of the nave and in the back, and there were risers in the front for the choir. There is also a balcony that circles three sides of the nave, but it was not being used.
The church: Since this was a special presentation and not one of St Mark's own services, the regular congregation was not strongly in evidence (although Rev. Billy is a member of the St Mark's vestry). It is obvious, however, that The Church of Stop Shopping is very involved with neighborhood and global social responsibility.
The neighborhood: The church is located in a section of Manhattan known as the East Village, a traditionally Bohemian area. It saw the Beat generation of the 1950s, the hippies of the 1960s, and devotees of the Punk movement of the late 1970s and 80s. New York University is close by, so the area has a youthful feel. You can find theaters and music clubs in the area, and many wonderful ethnic restaurants, including a whole group of Indian restaurants on East 6th Street, an area known as "Little Bombay."
The cast: Rev. Billy, a small band of musicians, and a fabulous Gospel choir.
The date & time: June 14, 2006. It started a little after 8.00pm and lasted until after 10.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
The Church of Stop Shopping. I'm not sure if you would call this a service or a show. It had elements of both.

How full was the building?
It was packed. There were probably 400-500 people in there, having a great time. Nobody wanted to leave this service early.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were a couple of nice ladies in the church vestibule who were very happy to accept $5 from each of us for admission. Rev. Billy was walking around, too, and he was quite pleasant.

Was your pew comfortable?
Well, it was a carpeted bleacher. It could have been a lot worse. I didn't notice any discomfort. It was a little hard to climb onto, but with the help of a friend's strong grasp, I managed quite well. Peter Stuyvesant was looking very stern behind us. Maybe he didn't approve of sitting comfortably in church.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was noisy, jovial and hot! It was like an oven in there. But there was joy and anticipation in the air.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service opened with a lively procession and a rousing number by the choir.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Nothing. Nada. There weren't even any programs. We were on our own.

What musical instruments were played?
A piano, a trumpet, a soprano saxophone, a trombone and drums. The acoustics were not good – too much echo – but the trumpeter played good jazz-style improvisations and the pianist was quite good. People were talking all through the "prelude," which made it harder to hear the music clearly.

Did anything distract you?
It was hot in there, until somebody finally turned on a fan behind us. That made it bearable, at least. The carpet on the bleachers where we were sitting was badly in need of a shampooing. I think there were a lot of little dust mites living in there. My allergies acted up, but not enough to make me want to move.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
These people bring "happy clappy" to a level unimagined outside of a Pentecostal revival meeting. They give a new meaning to the words.

rev billy

Exactly how long was the sermon?
It was the length of the whole presentation, which was about two hours, give or take. The preaching was interspersed with singing from the amazing Gospel choir. The whole presentation was riveting.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Actually, I would give Rev. Billy a +20. He is more than good. He is unbelievably good. And his message is one that we all need to hear.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Retail and other corporate giants such as Walmart, Starbucks, Disney, etc. are putting small local entrepreneurs out of business and causing the ruination of neighborhoods. They also thrive by exploiting workers. Rev. Billy also spoke of the shame of the Christmas "Shopocalypse" and the danger of using convenience as a reason for patronizing the giant concerns. He also spoke of the abuse of Planet Earth. In one segment of the show he brought two local businessmen forward to have them testify and to name them saints. This group believes in canonizing people while they are still alive. The two men were introduced with a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In." The collection that was taken was to start a special fund to help small neighborhood businesses in danger of being closed down.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The whole thing was heavenly, but I found the reading of the poem written by "Father Kurt" Vonnegut especially moving. It spoke of our abuse of the earth we live on, and ended with a very plaintive observation of how people don't really like living here. The original plan was to have Mr Vonnegut read his poem himself. He was suffering from the heat, however, and had to be helped outside. Rev. Billy read it. "Father Kurt" Vonnegut is the patron saint of the Church of Stop Shopping. I also loved the rousing Gospel-style music.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was too hot in there until they finally turned the fan on! Hallelujah! Let there be air!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had to leave before the end of Rev. Billy's last speech because it was lasting until after 10.00pm and I had to get home. So I had no chance to hang around looking lost. It wouldn't have mattered one way or another, anyway. There were too many people there.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Somehow I don't think they served coffee at 10.20pm, when the service ended! I had a chance to socialize with three friends beforehand, though, in a nice little bar-restaurant up the street. They make very nice jalapeno poppers.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I am probably going to end up getting myself onto their email list and receiving their newsletters. I would love to follow their doings in the future. I'm not sure if I will "join the congregation," though. I will have to rethink my buying habits first.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It reminded me that I am a member of the human race and that we should never just turn our backs and ignore what is happening to our neighborhoods and our world in the name of corporate greed. Yes, I am glad to be a Christian no matter what, but it is important to remember that I am also a member of the human family.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will also remember the sight of Rev. Billy being attacked and downed by a large, demonic Mickey Mouse doll. The choir promptly stood around him and prayed and sang over him, charismatic style, and of course he rose up delivered from the evil!
 
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