When the Saints Go Marching In
By Mike Roselle
June 9, 2011
Part old time tent revival, part Broadway musical, laced with humor and above all infused with activism, the Church of Earthalujah puts on a Sunday service like no other. At the center of the stage stands Rev. Billy Tallen, dressed in a white suit, clerical collar, and a shock of white hair that defies gravity, backed up by the Stop Shopping Choir, twenty five gospel singers, resplendent in robes of glowing green, a small rock band with two organs, producing a wall of sound that rocks the house. The hour and a half program features original songs, tight choreography , brilliant solos and a sermon by the Rev on the need to get involved in the movement to save our planet.
My first experience with Rev Billy was a year ago, when we came up to New York City to witness the sainting of Bo Webb, an anti mountain top removal campaigner from Naoma, West Virginia. During each service, the Rev inducts a new saint into the pantheon of the Church, and Bo delivered a guest sermon on the evils of mountain top removal. At the time, I was thinking that this performance was a parody, intended to inform and entertain, but not overtly religious, but after attending the service for the third time it dawned on me that Billy had actually built a congregation, that it was growing, and these performers were deadly serious about their mission to spur people into action to save our planet. By the time the curtain closes, the Rev has created a special bond between the performers and the audience, who by now have become part of the show.
Talking to Revered Billy after the show in a Mexican restaurant across the street from the Theater 80 Saint Mark in Manhattan’s East Village and asked him about the evolution of the Choir. “In the beginning I thought we were doing a parody too”, he says, “but after a while I could see that we were indeed building a congregation, and that there was some real power in the room, that we just might be on to something. That’s when we decided to do a service every Sunday, instead of just one every month or so, and now we have done twenty in a roll, with three more to go before we travel to Europe for an extended tour of the continent.”
In the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that on this trip it was my turn to be sainted, along with photojournalist and Appalachia Watch director Antrim Caskey. We were ushered on stage while the choir led the audience in a rousing rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In while Billy introduced us to the audience and we were duly canonized in the Church of Earthaloujah. “You don’t get a halo”, says Billy, “But at least we don’t kill you.”