Volume 74, Number 9 | June 30 - July 6, 2004

Heady brew of Starbucks, spirituality, Burningman

By Tien-Shun Lee

Villager photo by Tien-Shun Lee

From left, Reverend Billy Talen, Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Larry Harvey at Angel Orensanz on Wednesday.

A panel of three gregarious activists, referred to as “the Rabbi, the Reverend and the Renegade,” discussed the evils of consumerism and the role of mega-chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Starbucks during an event last week sponsored by the Sol Goldman 14th St. YM-YWHA.

Panelist Billy Talen, a reverend of his own church called the Church of Stop Shopping, said there is a spiritual moment when you say “no” to buying a product that gives people a unique feeling.

While seated behind a panel table inside the Angel Orensanz synagogue center on Norfolk St., Talen blasted Starbucks for destroying the character of neighborhoods by buying out local stores.

“Where’s the Joe’s Diner, where’s the Galaxy Diner in this neighborhood?” asked Talen. “Starbucks, the big, bad Starbucks, because they’ll go to the landlord of that place, they’ll bust that lease and they’ll buy that place. And if they couldn’t get the Galaxy, they’ll put the Starbucks up across the street.”

Arthur Waskow, a rabbi and the leader of a national Jewish network called the Shalom Center, disagreed with Talen on chain stores being evil.

“There is corporate responsibility. Religious groups are organizing to say you can’t have a 7-year-old working,” he said. “If Wal-Mart didn’t exist, they wouldn’t be buying that stuff. They’d be buying the stuff next door.”

Waskow said what he objects to is “fundamentalism” — when people take the most accessible thing, such as a 700-ft.-tall image of Kate Moss or a Walt Disney character, and turn it into an idol.

Panelist Larry Harvey, the “Renegade,” founder of Burningman, an annual event where thousands of people gather in the desert, away from society, said his idea of evil is when people do what is convenient without thinking about the consequences.

Harvey said he did not think that shopping is necessarily evil.

“Can you imagine if you didn’t have any products available and you had to form a personal relationship with everybody just to get what you needed?” asked Harvey.

Waskow pointed out that many people surrender to modern conveniences.

“They say, ‘It’s great!’ There’s more medicine, there’s more food,” said the rabbi.

While some people believe that life should progress backwards to the 17th century, others do not agree, said Waskow.

“There is a point to be made — that shouldn’t there be a place where the value of something is unconditional?” the rabbi said. “Shouldn’t there be a place where you wouldn’t feel like you needed this stuff?”

Waskow asked Talen and Harvey if they consider what they do — Talen’s anti-commercialism and Harvey’s Burningman happenings, where thousands gather to watch enormous bonfires — to be a religious or spiritual experience.

“The word ‘religion’ and the word ‘God,’ I find that they’re bankrupt,” responded Talen. “We don’t want to use the word ‘religion.’ We believe in a God that people who don’t believe in a God believe in.”

Margot Blum, director of the Sol Goldman YM-YWHA, said the purpose of bringing together the three strong panel personalities was to talk about the community, spirituality and activism.

“It’s fun and funny to be with such people,” said Talen after the hour-and-a-half long discussion was over. “Rabbi Waskow and Larry are adventurers of the soul.”

The panel discussion was moderated by Deborah Caldwell, founder of beliefnet, a Web site devoted to religion and spirituality.

Abject Photo, a member of the audience who attended the Burningman gathering in 2001, 2002 and 2003, said that being part of a non-consumerist gathering such as Burningman, where no products are allowed to be sold or bought, forces people to talk to their neighbors and to discover a new set of skills.

“You never have enough supplies or knowledge,” said Photo.


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