This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

But lo I am with you always, even to the end...

“If I tell you, you will not believe
and if I also ask you,
you will not answer me
nor let me go.”

- from the Tree's song How Long is a Little While

Shipen playing his sitar

October 29, 1975 – D Day. [I will try to explain what happened to us all on this day yet do my best to remain respectful and loving to Shipen and my fellow Trees. It was an emotional situation, but one that greatly impacted our small community. Forgive me if I sound callous or misinterpret things. It was a major turning point in our common life together.] The day began as most other days. We rose early, dressed and attended Vigils in our chapel, followed by cleaning and morning chores, all done in silence (Greater Silence meant no talking until after mass). Those who were home put on their habits over their clothes and trudged over to the Cathedral for morning mass. Without everyone there for an official chapter meeting, we decided to just have a family meeting and discuss the day’s plans.

Just as we finished the meeting, Shipen came in, visibly upset and went directly into the men’s room and closed the door. What was going on? I had to get to work at the gift shop so I left, hoping maybe he was just overly tired or something. I returned at 3pm for music rehearsal. Shipen was still sleeping so someone knocked on the door but he refused to come out. Dorian arrived for rehearsl, so we went ahead and rehearsed Psalm 137. Every once in awhile someone peaked in on Shipen. What was wrong? Was he sick?

Eventually, Melody went in and managed to find out that Shipen had taken some valium and was very upset about Dorian breaking up with him. A short time later, Shipen roused himself and left the apartment and said he was going over to rest on the bus. On the bed we found a poem Shipen had written:

Untitled Poem by Shipen

I asked Steve
for a piece of paper
a pen, an ashtray, my cigarettes
because in the ceiling
I saw a point where
I crossed the lives of Bruce
of Rocky, of John
I wondered why I had
asked for these pleasures
or the pleasures of
the machinery that won’t
let Karen Quinlan breathe
by herself.
maybe the machinery
is objectively better.
maybe they’re in trouble
no outlet-
move of the wonderful
and noble fight
of the fittest –
the one the world loves
even idolizes.
then strangely
on second thought
my Jesus beads –
the fight goes on
at least that isn’t lost,
because there are two there
and one, only one
will go to the meeting
when wrongs are righted
and hope renews itself
in the quiet, vital life
of forgiveness –
“I will never leave you
nor forsake you”
what a noise
what a way to go
to trumpets and
even though, only from
a distance
can they be heard.

Oh, oh. That was worrisome. Meanwhile, Stephen rushed after Shipen to check on him in the bus and found him overdosed on valium and vodka. What ensued was a back and forth flurry of activity between the bus and the apartment as we tried to deal with the situation and as we tried to reach Sister Mary Michael (no answer, she was out) and then Canon West (no answer) or the Dean (no answer). Where was everyone! Finally, Canon Dennis was home and went with several of us and Shipen to St. Luke’s Hospital.

Around 1am we all gathered around the dining room table drinking hot cocoa and waiting for news from St. Luke’s. At 2am we received a phone call with news that Shipen was being released What? How can that be? We brought him over to the Dean's and took shifts staying up with him as he slept. After just a few hours sleep, the community rose early and attended the Dean’s mass. We ran into Sister Mary who suggested we meet with her after breakfast.

It was a sober, worried, bedraggled group that met in the sister’s office that morning. She helped us deal with our feelings and try to decide what to do next. Together we prayed, seeking God's will and His grace and healing. Later in the afternoon, Shipen met with Canon West and decided to stay at Rodney Kirk’s for a few days…days that eventually turned into weeks. Over the next few days, Shipen called us from Rodney’s off and on but he seemed distant and uninterested in the goings on of our community.

I lay in my bunk after Compline each night, wondering what would become of The Trees? From the early days of the Loft, Shipen had been the guiding, charismatic force that drew everyone to the Loft. As our leader, he had been the glue that held us together throughout all our journeys and even after we settled in New York. If he didn’t return, would we be able to carry on? Or would the Trees slowly fall apart? It felt like there was a black hole, a void where Shipen had been and I faced each day one day at a time...

All week our friends at the Close and elsewhere kept asking, “Where is Shipen? When will he be back?” At chapter, we formed a policy to say he was okay but we decided we wouldn’t give any details of what had happened. The official line was he was on a leave of absence for awhile. At the time I was so focused on survival and dealing with the situation that I forced my feelings aside. It was only when I lay in the women’s dorm at night that I realized how numb I felt. Alone with my thoughts I kept trying to imagine the Trees without Shipen at the helm. This only made me more angry and hurt that he could just walk away from our dream, our ministry like that. How could he let a stupid love affair destroy everything we had worked so hard for over so many years? David had ditched me but I didn't toss in the towel (big dose of self pity).

I prayed things would return to normal (whatever that was) but I felt resentful. Years later when I called Dorian, he said he could barely remember his time with the Trees. He had no recollection that he was willing to share about his life with us and seemed put out that I would want to write such trivial, gossipy matters into a book. If I must do so, I would have to change his name (which I did). Well!

In a letter Shipen wrote to someone named Brother John, he touched on some of the reasons for his disengagement from the community:

"About 1 month ago I was so emotionally drowned that I couldn’t make a single decision, even for myself. And then I suggested that I should study the spiritual climate of the family until December at which time I would suggest whether I thought it feasible for the family to continue or not. After that suggestion then I would deal with my involvement or lack of involvement in the community. Since that time the division has indeed increased and some members have gone ahead with plans to go to the country to inhabit a farm. I have already said that at this point, I could not commit myself to the farm, this mainly because I don’t believe the time is right for this experience. However I do think it would give the needed experience to those who chose to work on this aspect of life. For me the project of the farm is too ambitious and is seen as savior, which it is and won’t be, but that’s something that will have to be discovered, necessarily without my influence. If the farm does indeed thrive and new authority lines are successfully established, then I would consider the project anew and enter as artistic director or the like for various periods of time. So I see the time ahead as a time for independent work and for individuals to get their heads together concerning the community and the community’s service to the church as over and above its services to itself and its own needs. When that is all worked out, then we may begin to consider more permanent vows." [end of excerpt]

In the end, Shipen never returned. Though we struggled on for over a year after he left, trying to form a recognized monastic community and struggling with our vocations, the community was never the same. Without Shipen to lead us as he had for over six years, suddenly it felt like being on a ship without a rudder, drifting and bobbing along. He had held us together through an incredibly difficult journey. I couldn’t imagine that he would jump ship without even looking back. For months I clung to the idea that Shipen would be back eventually, returning as he always did, rested and ready to take back the reins. God had called us to this ministry. Surely he wouldn't desert us?

Unfortunately, I was wrong and Shipen’s departure set into motion a series of events that would change our community forever.