Memoirs of a Reverend Billy Comrade
By Georgina Young-Ellis
I met Reverend Billy and his wife, Savitri, officially, in the summer of 2004, when the Republican National Convention was about to cast is gloom over New York City. Bush was president and we were at war with Iraq. We had been protesting the war, marching for peace, but now we were building up for a huge protest of the RNC. At the time, I was attending St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, a radical, social-justice and arts-oriented space in the East Village of NYC, that historically had hosted artists like Allen Ginsburg, Sam Shephard, Patti Smith, Isadora Duncan, and more. I’d seen Rev. Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir perform a few times at St. Marks, they having formed a relationship with the El Salvadoran priest-in-charge there, Julio Torres.
Billy, Savi, Julio, and another activist priest from St. Mark’s, Father Frank Morales, and I met one afternoon to discuss the possibility of housing the protesters that would be coming from all over the country for the convention. We all agreed that St. Mark’s and its large, open gathering spaces would be perfect for housing the activists, and that the duration would be about four days. Well, it evolved into something bigger and greater than we could have imagined.
A day or so before the convention, a few of the protesters arrived at St. Marks, and were welcomed. The day of, I marched with my own family, along with Billy and his contingent, from Union Square to Madison Square Garden. As we marched, the crowd grew and grew. We never got quite as far as MSG because of the vast throng, so we just stayed in place with our signs and chanted slogans. There were more protestors than anyone had imagined, and, somehow, word got out about St. Mark’s’ offer of refuge. We had originally decided to call the event, “Four Days of Sanctuary,” but that soon changed to eight days, then ten, then twelve. There were so many protestors they were camped out in the yards of the church, in the actual sanctuary, the parish hall, everywhere. Billy, Savi, and Frank Morales stayed more involved, helping to feed and provide for the people, than I did, because I had my own family to tend to at the time.
That was the start of many actions I participated in with Rev. Billy and choir, usually with my husband and young son in tow. We did one in the train station of the World Trade Center, as the site was beginning to undergo new construction, wherein a group of us meandered about, pretending to talk on cell phones, while really muttering the 1st amendment under our breath. Then, on cue, we began coordinating our muttering until we were all reciting it together, loudly, over and over, kind of like a flash mob before such things became popular.
Another time a beautiful, historic home near my house in Queens was being torn down to be replaced by apartment buildings. Many, nearly two-hundred-year-old trees were ripped out of the ground as a result. We’d tried protesting this demolition, but to no avail. So, resigned, I asked Rev. Billy and group if they would come out to Queens to perform a “Funeral for the Trees,” at the site, in order to make the neighborhood aware of what really happened there. They did, Billy preaching about the tragedy of it all, and our blindness to the earth and what it was trying to tell us. The choir gathered at my house afterwards for a meal, some twenty of us or so crammed into my tiny home.
There are so many more stories of actions, and protests—Billy’s Green Party campaign for Mayor in 2008—Occupy Wall Street—some things I was a part of and some not. I taught Billy and Savi Spanish for a while, until just after their daughter, Lena, was born; basically, my family and I would just jump in to help or participate whenever we could, seeing so many of their performances I’ve lost track.
Now, we live in Portland, many miles from NYC and the Rev’s HQ, but they come to town once or twice a year, and we always see them when they do. We stay in touch via email, phone, and social media, and I continue to watch them making change and impacting the world with their radical, pro-earth and anti-consumerist message. As Billy might say, Change-alujah, Portland-alujah, and Earth-alujah!