Tucked away on West 16th Street in Manhattan, among the nightclubs and food purveyors of the Meatpacking District, the Highline Ballroom may seem an unlikely place for a gospel revival. But on Sunday afternoon, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping brought their unique liturgy to a standing-room-only crowd. The construction site of the Spectra gas pipeline served as a figurative, and, by the end of the day, literal backdrop for a musical sermon on the evils of high finance, fossil fuel dependence and corporate-mediated culture.
The Occupy Wall Street’s Environmental Solidarity Working Group, along with other community organizations, hosted the “church service” as part of a fight against Texas-based Spectra Energy’s plan for a 30-inch, high-pressure gas pipeline that would cross the Hudson River, entering Manhattan on Gansevoort Street, just steps away from a park and playground. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently approved the pipeline, as did the Hudson River Park Trust. The trust’s board of directors is chaired by Diana L. Taylor, partner of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also a pipeline supporter.
The pipeline would pass through several municipalities in New Jersey, and some of these, notably Jersey City, have fought the pipeline aggressively. The city argued that FERC cannot be objective in its approval process because the agency’s budget depends on fees from approved pipelines. Jersey City’s counsel called the process “a rigged game” in legal filings, according to The Jersey Journal.
Meanwhile, Spectra’s website devoted to the project touts what it says is the company’s good safety record, while emphasizing prospects for creating jobs and the region’s energy needs. But, saneenergyproject.org, one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, raises the question of whether the gas is even intended for use in the New York area, or if it is to be exported to the highest bidder. The site also criticizes Spectra’s safety record, citing “a history of safety issues.” Last month, Spectra projects in Canada sustained two pipeline ruptures in less than a week. A gas pipeline operated by a different company in San Bruno, Ca., exploded in 2010, killing eight people and leveling 38 homes. Manhattan is much more densely populated, making the risk to life and property even greater in the event of an explosion. Despite these risks, activists say JPMorgan Chase has invested $1.5 billion in the project.
Where Wall Street and Spectra see profit in the gas being extracted from the earth using the controversial hydraulic fracturing process, then pumped through an urban neighborhood at high pressure, Reverend Billy put the focus on the communities being affected. “Power: I think there’s something burning!” sang his Stop Shopping Choir upon entering the nightclub-turned-church. “Power: How deep have we been drilling?” Drawing a line from crisis, to action, to potential solution, the choir then belted its rendition of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, a document produced early on by Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly. A dance number evoked the Haka war dance of the Maori people of New Zealand, similar to a dance that OWS activists performed in Zuccotti Park on March 17. Reverend Billy asked, “What would happen if we did that on Spectra’s board table?”
In his sermon, Reverend Billy compared the pipeline to what he sees as the false heroes of comic books, popular culture and politics. As many comic book heroes are born of trauma, he described the Spectra Pipeline as a false hero, born of the trauma of hydrofracking. The real hero, he says, is community. Occupy Wall Street’s power is in the act of “Living together in public … [without] corporations inserting themselves between us.” He challenged the audience, or congregation, saying, “It’s time to be radical Americans again. … We have to practice being human beings again.”
Offstage, Reverend Billy is Billy Talen, and his wife Savitri D directs the shows. The idea for the character emerged around 20 years ago through Talen’s conversations with Sidney Lanier, a “maverick” Episcopal priest, when they envisioned together a “post-religious American preacher.” Lanier convinced Talen to leave his life as a theater producer for a more spiritual calling.
Talen is not ordained, describing himself as a “relief from ordination,” but he is in some sense a practicing minister with a living community. “Americans are a religious people,” he says. ”There is a tremendous kind of power in community that is religious … and you don’t have to have that god looking over you. In fact, for us, that would be the death of our church.”
Following the indoor concert, Reverend Billy, activists and audience members sang and marched together through Lower Manhattan. The march culminated in a rally at Hudson River Park, overlooking the pipeline construction site.
No matter how serious the cause, or how high the stakes, laughter puts people at ease, and effective direct action often has an element of whimsy. Within the confines of the Highline Ballroom, he was preaching to the converted. But, on the march, and at Hudson River Park, onlookers responded well to Reverend Billy, the choir and the congregants. The message conveyed was not only about a pipeline, but about the creativity of dissent.
“The idea of community as hero is encouraging a power that is spiritual,” Talen said, after the performance. “That is precisely the kind of power that, through history, … has risen up and stopped militarized power.” Unlike Spectra Energy, Reverend Billy sees power not in the shale beneath us, but in the soul within us.
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