Bill Talen is a writer and performer who for over two decades now has been performing as Reverend Billy. Here from his website is a description of the current incarnation of his church, The Church of Earthalujah:
They are wild anti-consumerist gospel shouters, earth loving urban activists who have worked with communities on 4 continents defending land, life and imagination from reckless development and the extractive imperatives of global capital. They employ multiple tactics and creative strategies, including cash register exorcisms, retail interventions, cell phone operas combined with grass roots organizing and media activism. They are entertainers and artists, performing regularly throughout The US and Europe.
What that doesn’t say is that they, and he, are also a great show. Good music, good laughs, good thoughts. He’s something else. I got turned on to him by a professor up here and have now been to church, so to speak, three times.
So tonight he was giving a reading at a BK bookstore (an independent one, of course), so I headed out in the cold to make the 5:22 train into the city. I was running late and not sure I would make it when a woman pointed at me. A black, heavyset, middle-aged woman. I don’t remember how she hailed me, as I had my iPod earbuds in, maybe it was “Excuse me young man,” and then she said, “Can you help me get something to eat?”
Here is why I did.
-We were right outside of McDonald’s, which made me believe that she really was going to spend the money on food. Not that I particularly care about that.
-I had previously been hailed outside of this McDonald’s one night, coming home. I’d just had some drinks with friends in the city, on my gold card, and a black man came up to me. I must have seemed skittish – I am on the streets a bit since the mugging – because he held up his hands and said something like, “No trouble, no trouble. I’m just trying to feed these kids. I’ve got these kids in the car there and anything you can give me would be a blessing.”
I said, “I don’t have any cash.”
It was true.
He said, without any irony, “That’s okay. God bless you.”
I felt AWFUL. I felt SO BAD. I walked halfway up the block and turned around. I wanted to take out my gold card and walk with the man into the McDonald’s and buy him everything on the menu. But I couldn’t see him anymore. I felt terrible. I don’t care if there were kids, but if there were, oh boy.
-She singled me out. This is the 911 effect, right? If you’re at the scene of some event, and you say, as a cry to the heavens, “Somebody call 911!” it’s possible that nobody will. So your elementary school teachers (or whoever taught me this) train you to pick out one person in the crowd and say, “Call 911!” Because then that person will be like, oh shit! Me! I have to do this!
Of course I was taught this back before cellphones, when I suppose you would have had to run to a payphone or something. But you get the idea.
-She was a woman.
I mean we can’t lie and say that the physical features of the person panhandling don’t have an effect on us. This is why lately I’ve been toying with the idea that Sarah Lawrence or NYU actors ought to put some hours on the streets. They can have their little piece of cardboard, and they can be dressed to the nines, with their bright-eyed predominantly white faces, and they can smile and hold up a sign that says “Give me money and I will give it to poor people FOR you.” And every twenty minutes they can sing a song from Thoroughly Modern Millie or do a monologue from How I Learned to Drive or whatever damn thing they learned to do in school.
I’m not kidding. I think this is a great idea and it just needs some legitimacy to get going.
-I knew I had some cash.
I didn’t know how much, but I knew I had some because I’d used it to buy tea on campus today. (Relax, I used my own mug; no paper products.) So my standby, “I don’t have any cash,” would have been a LIE.
Here’s a secret. I’ve used that line many times, and it’s often a lie anyway. And so today I had to come to terms with the fact that when I say
I don’t have any cash
What I at least part of the time mean is
I don’t have any real desire to help you personally
In this way I either have to shape up or change my definition of cash.
I know all the arguments for not giving money to individuals, sure. I don’t really have a problem with people who say “I donate to charity, not to people.” On the other hand, this woman asks me if I can help her buy a meal, and I have disposable income right in my pocket here, what is the alternative?
“Oh, no, ma’am, I have no money for you. BUT, I am about to go spend $17 roundtrip for train tickets to and from Brooklyn, and $20 on a book to get it signed, so that I can be inspired by another man’s art and activism to maybe devote part of my $30,000 tuition to writing and producing a play about people LIKE YOU which won’t be seen by or (it’s a good bet) help in any concrete way anyone LIKE YOU.”
It’s a bit absurd, no?
Today, coincidentally, in class I was shown an interview with Augusto Boal, the man behind Theater of the Oppressed. A Brazilian once imprisoned and tortured for his desire to help people, Boal envisioned a kind of theater that could truly empower people. One thing that shoved him in this radical new direction was a production he did early on in which he and some other actors played peasants. They dressed up like peasants and wore peasant make-up to look dirty and did their peasant act. It went over well with the peasants who watched. They approached the actors and said, “We are going to go get our justice! Come with us and bring your rifles!”
The actors had to explain that they only had prop rifles.
The peasants said, no matter! We have enough rifles for everyone! Come with us!
The actors had to explain that they were only artists and not really revolutionaries.
Oof. Boal started to wonder about what his real role was as an artist.
Cut to me telling my new ladyfriend, “I don’t know how much cash I have.”
She said, “Whatever you can do.”
I opened my wallet. Shit. All I have is a $5 bill. We all know that’s a pretty big tip for your average panhandler. So there was 1 full second, feel it, right now, as you read, when I hesitated, wallet open, and thought about closing it. Also absurd. There it is, we both see it, the green bill.
GIVE THE FUCKING FIVE DOLLARS ALREADY.
I did, and she blessed me, as they do, you know. I take those blessings seriously. The blessings of the poor? Shit. Collect those like box tops.
In my post on Jesus I mentioned Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness. There’s a line in there that has stuck in my craw: “Nothing is too good for the poor.” Here’s a little context:
What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate, to ignore the price of coffee and go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us, good coffee and the finest of bread.
“Nothing is too good for the poor,” our editor Tom Sullivan says…
When I think of all the good things I have on a regular basis – that good tea I bought, for example, or the good warm house I’m writing this from – I have a hard time arguing with that. And five bucks doesn’t even get you a value meal these days, remember.
You may ask, what if you had only had a $20? Would you have given it to her?
I’ll tell you when that happens. I don’t know yet.
You may also ask, did you just do this so you could blog about it and rack up some kind of favor with your thousands of readers?
I wasn’t thinking about you all at the time, no, but even if I had, I refer you to the Peter Singer entry I wrote, in which I argue, as he does, that your motivation behind a charitable act in no way changes the act itself. The woman had $5 whether I was a selfless monk or a glory hound. Furthermore, think of Steve Jobs (and more on him in a minute too). When he died, one of the biggest criticisms is that there is no public record of his philanthropy. We have really no idea if he donated any of his money to anything. It’s true that he may have donated anonymously, but why not be like Gates and Zuckerberg and lead by example? It would have meant something to some people to see Steve Jobs donate to causes, just like it means something to people that we have no reason to believe he did. Ya dig?
I also mentioned in that Jesus entry how my friend’s dad used to carry quarters around so he always had something to give. Not much, but something. Tonight I was reminded that another friend of mine gave advice to always carry cash. “Mugger money,” he calls it.
Why not carry beggar money too?
The final push for this entry came once I made it to the Reverend Billy event. Sadly, it was mostly just a few of his friends, four undergrad types, me, and a couple of passersby. But Billy and his wife read a great chapter on American Idol, and then they had a brief Q&A. Well, a friend of his talked about reading that chapter previously and how she had stopped in the middle to look up youtube clips of the episode they referenced. I used my iPhone, she said, “I hate to admit it.”
I hate to admit it. Those words rang in my ears.
Because we all have this bullshit mea culpa don’t we? I mean we have dozens of them. All the time. But our reliance on Apple is one of the classics. I mean here we are in this independent bookstore, we’re listening to these activists talk about anti-consumerism, and we’re all Apple junkies. Or some kind of junky junky.
Because what’s the absurd argument there? “Okay, I know about Apple’s labor abuses, I know about the workers who committed suicide, the poor pay, the bad conditions, I know about the resources used to make these products, I know all of that, but…having an iPad is really convenient, and it’s helping me do the research for this play I’m writing about the Chinese workers…”
OH MY GOD.
But what makes the Apple case the most pernicious is we don’t know how to get out of it. Unplug yourself from the grid? Donate to…Chinese Apple worker charities? We’re stuck. We don’t want to like Apple, or Starbucks, or Walmart, but we do, so then we flagellate about it. I’m so bad I’m so bad I’m so bad. And then we plug back into our Apples. And it’s terrible, and it makes us all feel impotent.
Okay maybe just me. But I bet it makes you feel queasy for at least a few seconds at a time.
So I thought, I will break the cycle of impotence! I am going to take a hammer to my iPad right in the quad of Sarah Lawrence!
Because, a note on why I have one in the first place. For my 24th birthday, I asked for nothing. I asked for my family to make donations to charity in my name. This did not fly with my family. My sister was a good sport and bought me some fair trade soap, but my family does not deal well with a dearth of physical presents, and so I had to scramble and invent some more bullshit books and DVDs I could shove in a basement somewhere.
Christmas rolled around and it was the same thing. I didn’t want anything. Pressure. Finally I said give me an iPad. It’s the budget I know you allot for this stuff. Let’s just get this over with. So now I have one.
And, as I remembered after I made my mental hammer pledge, it brings me some joy in life.
Consider. Just this morning I was doing my morning routine while my temporary roommate ate my waffles in the kitchen. I brought my iPad into the room and played various Aretha Franklin songs on youtube. It was nice. You know? I could have fired up the laptop and played some (from iTunes), but time is precious, right?
Or a few nights ago, when this roomie and I were watching the Golden Globes, and using the iPad to settle really pressing matters, like “Is Juanita a common name for black women?” and “Didn’t Charlize Theron’s mom kill her dad?” I mean we could have gotten up from the futon (I always cuddle with my roommates) and fired up the laptop, but…
The iPad has been a little tool in the bringing of HAPPINESS, see? And happiness is a kind of capital? I’m not going to write any plays or give out any fivers if I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed, or if I kill myself. Happiness helps me do good.
(Unless, of course, I’m wrong. Because I have to keep in mind that after a few days with this roommate, I checked my email and saw all kinds of action alerts about SOPA. And I thought, what’s SOPA? And deleted them. Because the beginnings of a new roommate relationship can be all-consuming as we all know.)
But, all things considered, I am hesitant to smash the iPad just yet. But then I came up with an alternative.
You see, I have two iPods. Oh God. I know. Take me out back and end it.
Here’s why. On another Christmas, blah blah, no ideas blah blah, get me an iPod touch. Fine. This fine apparatus was involved in my mugging, if you recall. Then, I was home over the holidays, and my mother received a new iPod nano (like the ultimate new generation, or whatever), in the mail. Apparently something can go wrong with your iPod nano if you microwave it and then stick it in your mouth, or something, so Apple, rather than face a class-action lawsuit, decided to MAIL NEW ONES TO EVERYONE WHO OWNED ONE.
Please think about this when you think about the Chinese workers.
Now, my mother owns an iPod nano but generally doesn’t nuke it and suck on it, so she has no real need for the new one, and she offered it to me. I was like, no! I have principles! But she was like, you can clip it to your belt when you run.
This hit me in a weakspot, because I’ve been running a lot to look fit for the new roommate.
And she said, also, it gets radio.
Now, wouldn’t you know it, this morning I thought I lost the stupid thing. I got to campus early and went to the cushy couch place and read some Stuart Little (it’s a roommate thing), and had my iPod out. And then later, as I was going to walk to my car, I couldn’t find it. Noooooo! I left it out and one of these privileged students has taken it by now for sure!
And you know, I had this thought. I thought,
Oh, I hope someone did. I hope someone did take it.
I’m not sure exactly why, but it was like when I had to give my apartment key to my landlord the day before I left for break, and so left my apartment wide open a couple of times when I had to go out. I thought, each time I left, oh, I hope someone goes in and steals all my stuff.
I don’t know. Maybe it will divorce me from this life of things I lead. It will do what I don’t have the courage to do myself.
It’s like when Spalding Gray, in Swimming to Cambodia, right before he gets to his perfect moment, describes how he worried over where to hide his money on the beach, and then said, You know what Spalding, let them have it, put it where anyone can take it.
But, hurrah, I had the stupid thing in my pocket the whole time.
Finally, and you’re so patient for making it this far, I realized on the train home what the first step is. I am going to sell this iPod. I am going to sell it to the best offer I get, even if it’s $1, and I am going to donate that $1 to the Geneseo Migrant Center Scholarship Fund. The Geneseo Migrant Center is a 501c3 that does great work for migrant workers. I’ve been in touch with them due to a project I’m working on. I believe we need justice for the people who bring food to our tables, and this agency does good work.
So. Let me sell you on the iPod a little.
It has magical powers. Really. A few days after I got it, I went to Chicago on a pilgrimage in search of true love. I loaded the thing up with music that I thought would summon the powers of true love. I listened to it on the plane and during sleepless nights in the hotel room I shared with my lightly snoring friend. And I did in fact find true love. So. Yeah.
It’s only been used for a few weeks.
If you want to bid, silent auction style, leave a comment with the amount. If you want to bid privately, email me. If you don’t have my email address, leave a comment explaining your predicament.
I’ll take bids for a week (this gives you time to mull), and at at 11:30 pm on Jan. 25, the highest bidder wins and I will even pay the shipping if you’re out of state.
And if you don’t think I’m really gonna donate, you’re cynical, but I’ll show you the receipt or something. Geez.
And if no one bids, I’m just going to leave it on the ground out by that McDonald’s. I swear to Meryl Streep, I will.
This may not be much, but it’s something.
GIVE THE FUCKING FIVE DOLLARS ALREADY.