The congregation of the Church of Stop Shopping is lining up outside Xspace, the new OCAD-student-run gallery, waiting for services to begin. Hallelujah. As we step into the Kensington Market space, Reverend Billy, the New York City-based political preacher and performance artist, greets his flock with a warm handshake and a "Bless you, Sister. Bless you, Brother."
Soon he asks the congregants to raise their hands to the sky. He's not invoking Jesus, but the Multi-Gendered God Goddess Unknown Thing.
This isn't the first time I've seen the good Rev perform. My first encounter was at a NYC Dennis Kucinich fundraiser. There, the church's gospel choir rang out Amen-elujahs to his call to "take your hands off the Starbucks coffee." I was hooked.
In town for the biannual 7a*11d performance art festival, Reverend Billy (Bill Talen in another life) is shaking his bleached blond plume and shaking his hips to access the unknown powers that be. He's overcome, and falls in an evangelical fit. We laugh but soon become serious.
He tells us we have work to do - to direct our attention to the demons of big business encroaching upon "the commons," threatening its very survival.
Protecting public space and the local is sacred, he tells us. "A commons is where something unexpected happens, it's where we share stories, where we gossip, where we lie." Unless we intervene, he warns, our shared space will be transformed into multi-transnational malls that are both policed and privatized.
And this is not just a matter of losing unique, arty shops. We will be losing Main Street, the public thoroughfare where we can speak freely in the voice of democracy and against the corporatocracy.
"We definitely need to walk out of that whiney, lefty progressive critiquing,' he says. "We have to say, 'Yes, let's do it. '' And so we do!
The flock follows him down Augusta to the new Freshmart, which is going to sell the products of President's Choice, owned by food giant Loblaws. We get down on our knees to pray and, lo and behold, the doors open.
It must be divine intervention. Owner Martin Zimmerman opens his doors to about 150 people on their knees, whereupon Reverend Billy rises up and we rise up. Some of us follow him as he makes his way across the threshold, from public space into private space, thereby enacting Billy's belief that trespassing is at the root of all revolutionary action.
In the store there's no looting or violence, no destruction at all. Instead, an exasperated Zimmerman speaks in defence of his family business, telling us of its 50-year history in the Market, and we all listen. The congregants let him have his say for a while but then start to ask questions.
"Isn't it true that you've signed a contract with President's Choice and that you'll have to follow its pricing?" He responds, "Yes. What's wrong with giving my customers affordable prices?"
Someone else offers that "this attracts customers away from the small stores and ultimately puts them out of business."
Earlier that evening, Reverend Billy said from the pulpit that it was necessary to mobilize a counter-invasion against the takeover of places like Kensington Market, and that we need to move beyond art, hipness and critique to achieve this end. But it takes the power of performance art to generate this public exchange.
When Zimmerman suggests we move the discussion back onto the street, we agree. What are we doing but sanctifying the very commons that Reverend Billy is trying so hard to save?