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.

On the road again: Land of Enchantment

Resting, reading and talking inside the bus

Some Symphony members with cats next to our new bus mural

Our old school bus was once again our full time home. We left Houston and were on our way to Austin, Texas when suddenly there was a loud explosion and a rhythmic thumping. David swerved to the side of the road and discovered the left rear tire had blown. As it happened, Sister VanDyke’s angels must have still been hard at work because we were close enough to a gas station to limp in and get the tire replaced. We then made it to The Well where our hosts Keith and Dennis welcomed us and led us to a spacious guesthouse at Rio Grande Street and Ninth Avenue where we stayed for the next week.

The Well was a charismatic community that included a special singing group that regularly performed at their coffeehouse. We had heard about it from Mikel Kennedy and others at Redeemer. The following morning we unloaded, organized and then rehearsed in preparation for the evening performance at the coffeehouse. Before the concert we were invited to dinner with the community’s elders and were peppered with questions about our group. Afterwards, we dressed in our robes, tuned and played a set at 9 pm followed by another set at 11. The next morning we attended services at St. Elias, a Syrian Orthodox church, then spent the afternoon out at Lake Travis swimming and relaxing.

The following day we again met with elders of The Well and Shipen led off with a teaching and discussion about losing your salvation and repentance. This led to many questions about our life together and discussion about the importance of learning to be less judgmental, obedient and making commitments to an elder in the church. We also talked about our unique monastic calling until it seemed we had answered all of their questions. It was a lively, friendly exchange and we were invited back the next night for a full evening presentation, broken into three segments. The first set started with more charismatic attention-getting type songs. The second set was interview-style with Shipen and others explaining to the crowd how we got together and how we became Christians, and so on. The third set included Rothko, the Trilogy and our more somber songs. It was a very successful performance and afterwards we received many contributions including a special donation of $20, which was enough for us to eat out at McDonald’s – a real treat!

On June 26, 1972, Shipen again wrote Canon West, about the state of the Symphony and the state of the “church”, along with questions about our future. The tone and content of his letter reflect the recent discussion with elders of the Well:

Dear Father West

I hope your trip to London was eventful and happy. The Symphony has made its departure from Houston and we are now in Austin for a few days. Last night we sang for a coffeehouse here having to maintain a 3 hour evening. I was surprised to find out that we didn’t need to repeat any songs.

Before we left Houston, we gave a farewell concert at Rothko chapel (dedicated to Mark Rothko’s final 14 paintings) and enjoyed a unique experience. We had no official departing gestures with the Church of the Redeemer, and were somewhat saddened by this as you know.

Father, we have been given to see the bubbling political split that is coming over the Church as was the Archbishop’s concern, but also there is a growing discontent with the new jargon and new “miracle” Christianity. After a few years there is a deep yearning in these youth, to feel free enough to express their own liturgical statements. I sense a coming revival of the monastic life and a re-examination of the contemplative life by the charismatic movement. Already there seems to be an unspoken puzzlement spreading across organizations that have been “in the spirit” for over two years. I think the answer is going to lie, for them, in sacramental confession, the problem is that none are willing as yet, to make that confession.

Today, Sunday, we are going to a Syrian Orthodox Church after having enjoyed so much Bishop John’s church. We are happy to be reinstated in our minds with the desert fathers, thanks to you.

As it stands now, we will head on to Abilene, then to New Mexico and the Pecos Benedictine monastery for a time in the desert mountains. It will give us a chance to work on some new music and new tonal ideas. Also to have time to get to know Jim and Larry better – so far they have been a real refreshment to us. Grace has decided to finish school and possibly join us in New York when we return.

Last week saw us remodeling the bus. There is a workable kitchen now with an old fashioned pump that pumps water from a 60 gallon tank fixed onto the back under the bus. As you might guess, we also experienced our first tire blow out with the added weight. This always frightens me a bit, but we are protected.

I spoke to Rodney about things that are soon to confront us, being 1. whether or not we are to return north for the cold months not having quarters, 2. the fear of staying away until spring, a year being a long time alone. These questions put us in the position of needing definite council since we have already begun to move, but don’t know whether to go north from Pecos or west to California…

Still uncertain about our future, nevertheless we focused on the immediate needs of the present. Our internal struggles were putting pressure on our newest member, Jim Bailey. He continued to be angry yet was unwilling to talk about what was bothering him. We realized that our capacity for openness and the ability to “let it all out” might be somewhat intimidating and uncomfortable our newest members. However, at the time we were of the belief that this type of dialogue was crucial to keeping the lines of communication open. (I’m afraid we were also somewhat ungracious in the way we harped on one another’s faults as much as we did. Then it seemed necessary. In hindsight, I think we took each other way too seriously at times!)

July 1, 1972 we thanked the Well folk for their hospitality, packed up the bus and drove to The Mustard Seed to play at a coffee house in Smithville. The first act was a Christian group called New Dawn. The crowd was loud and disrespectful, not a good sign. After their set, we quickly set upon the small stage. I had a really difficult time tuning my harp because of the rowdy laughter and loud voices in the crowded room. Unfortunately, even after we began our music, the audience continued being disruptive, hooting, and laughing. Outside people were setting off rounds of firecrackers. The room was hot, dimly lit and stuffy but we struggled on, playing as loudly as possible so as to be heard. After the first 10 minutes, several tables of drunk and rowdy patrons finally left the room leaving about 12 young people sitting close to the stage listening quietly. We finished our set, tore down and drove back to our guesthouse.

Over the next week we rehearsed, performed and met with members of this community. On July 2nd, after celebrating Steve’s birthday, we thanked the Well folk for their warm hospitality and drove over to Christian Farms in Killeen, Texas where Mikel Kennedy and his wife Carol had dinner waiting for us. There we stayed for the following two weeks.

On our third day there, a young boy named “Eric” found his way onto the bus and almost immediately began having convulsions. Not sure what was going on, we rushed him to the hospital on the bus, laying hands on him and praying as we drove until we were able to get him to the emergency room. It was a nerve-wracking experience. Later we found out he had overdosed on cocaine.

While at Christian Farms, we met Father Block who invited us to perform at St. Christopher’s the following Sunday, and also met with the singing group that drove up from The Well to meet with Mike Kennedy and others. They asked Mike for help and invited him to come down to join their community. On Thursday, we visited a farm for heroin rehabilitants from Fort Hood Army post and performed at their prayer meeting called “The Right Side.”

Through all this, our two new members Jim and Larry struggled with adjusting to life in the Symphony. Shipen wrote to Canon West about our concerns and difficulties in his July 7th letter:

Dear Father West:

We are well under way now and have had a chance to readjust to the bus. The new kitchen is a blessing. It is a new thing for us to go into the cabinets from the front instead of through the top. Before the food was attainable only by taking off the countertop and reaching down. Now there are sixteen separate front entrances, carefully placed so that all kitchen, cleaning, and writing needs are immediately attainable. Brother David commented that he felt we had also gone through the same changes in our relationships.

Generally things have slowed to allow Jim and Larry to become adjusted. In some measures it is incredibly difficult since both were raised Southern Baptist – and you know the feelings toward bishops, etc. But living as closely as we do, they are beginning to understand that we are intrinsically united and that to live in peace we must be in submission one to another, and there seems to be fruit in this. Both of them have trouble considering an organic life style, this is most obvious in the music. There is a desire to “write it down” and increase the proficiency – but they see this as a separate endeavor instead of a group project. Instead of the group becoming proficient as a single instrument, they feel it is necessary that each become proficient separately and then relate. If we were musicians I would agree with them. Larry has played the violin, and Jim the clarinet, and that has presented some problems in free expression.

Various parts of all our personalities are coming to the fore to be dealt with so that we may be able freely to enter upon confession. It seems the newer members have more to hold on to than the old, so it’s an unfair tug of war to begin with. Praise the Lord!

We used the next two days to relax. It was hot in Texas in the midst of summer so we cooled off in Lake Stillwater, went boating and Bonsai-ing (which meant finding small stunted trees to repot and prune). In the evening there was a bonfire and we sat around singing “oldies but goodies” and listening to Mike Kennedy who amazed us all with his expertise on guitar. He seemed to know almost every song! [end of excerpt from Shipen's letter]

On July 9th, we performed during the service at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Killeen. Unfortunately, Shipen felt that we had given a lackadaisical performance and he was furious! Later in the day he exploded, expressing his feeling that we were becoming completely dependent on him and that we were far too apathetic about our musical mission. Chastised, we put much more effort into our evening performance at the chapel at Ft. Hood. Thankfully, it went much more smoothly and was well received.

July 10th, Jim expressed his complete dissatisfaction with things, saying he felt imprisoned and claiming he couldn’t communicate with anyone. He stated he was leaving for Pecos, New Mexico (our next stop) and then drove off with Mike. We lifted the matter up for prayer. It was quite a surprise when we joined Mike and Carol Kennedy for dinner and found Jim there, much more open and willing to talk. (Thank you Mike for your gift of reconciliation!) Jim and Shipen had a long, private discussion and the next morning Jim left in a much more amiable mood. It was agreed we would meet him in Pecos to discuss the future.

Shipen wrote about the tumultuous situation in his next letter to Canon West:

Dear Father West:

So much has happened this past two weeks it is difficult to account for it all. There have been eruptions in and around the family, which have caused us all to hang on for dear life.

Jim B., whose larger movement couldn’t be confined to a cloistered bus, burst out in rage last week and went ahead to Pecos where we are planning to go to spend a time of retreat with the Benedictines there. After seeing that action and sensing Jim’s deeper needs, I am not quite sure he should be permitted back on the bus. Jim has always desired to be obedient but has been incapable of submission and has “elder phobia.” His two years at the Church of the Redeemer proved fruitless for him. Yet he has never had the courage to strike out on his own. This present opportunity may afford him that chance. His correspondence seems to be asking to rejoin us, but I am not sure of his motives. He was quite accurately warned of the hazards of the bus well before we left Houston, but he was determined to be with us. Now only three weeks of effort and he has bolted. We will be meeting to discuss the future with him in Pecos on Thursday. [end of excerpt from letter]

During the final three days at Christian Farms we fellowshipped with people there and were invited to several homes for some delicious home-cooked meals. On July 12th we joined Father Block, June Weisenhunt and others for swimming, barbecue, conversation and music.

The next day we had dinner and Compline with a Lieutenant Colonel Hanke, his wife and Bob Bearden in their beautiful home in the country. I especially enjoyed hearing their stories of their travels. They gave us many gifts before we left including a type of wooden xylophone from Africa called a balangi. It was made of long carved wooden slats woven together over a frame under which hung various sizes of dried out gourds. The gourds were hollowed out and cut in half to help amplify the notes struck by wooden mallets. Colonel Hanke had obtained the balangi while stationed in Africa. We promised to put it to good use in our symphony.

The day before we left Christian Farms, we held a family meeting dealing with Shipen and Ariel’s relationship as well as other people’s issues of lust and self-indulgence. Once misunderstandings were discussed, we were able to clear the air. One of the problems we faced living in such a small space was there was no room for privacy. It had been agreed early on that everyone would refrain from acting on any sexual desires and we would maintain platonic relationships. This meant taking a vow of chastity. The goal was to give one’s whole self over to God following the classic monastic model. A side benefit was it helped stabilize our relations. Nevertheless, it resulted in a certain amount of sexual tension and frustration.

July 14th we headed for Abilene “the prettiest town I’ve ever seen” to stay with Steve Gambill’s parents for the next four days. Upon arrival we gave a house concert for the Gambill family and their guest, a local Catholic priest, Father Bridges. The priest’s response to our music was somewhat negative, something to the effect that he did not “feel part of it” and with an abrupt goodnight, he left. Taken aback, we retired to the bus for a long talk about anger, resentment and how lack of support can create disharmony and divisiveness. We went to bed at 2:30 a.m.

July 16th Shipen led a family discussion focused on the level of inaction and lack of assertiveness that resulted from many of us not bearing any responsibility. Specifically, Shipen was annoyed that he had to call all the shots and we showed almost no personal initiative. He also complained there was a general malaise and we had become too passive and lazy. The priest from Heavenly Rest Church had dropped by and suggested we “stand up, take our share of the burden wholeheartedly and each do our duty before God.” He also suggested it would be a good idea to make confessions to a priest instead of to one another. Chastened, we then performed at the Folk mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and our performance was very well received.

The day before we left Steve’s hometown, the bus needed additional repairs (steering, U-joints) so we took time to bake bread, visit with the Gambill family, write poetry or work individually on songs. On July 18th we departed Abilene and drove to Hobbs, New Mexico where we performed at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church and stayed with Father Guam and people from his congregation for a few days. Three days later, we reached another crisis. Early in the day there was a lot of horseplay and fooling around. Then as we were setting up before a performance in the parish hall, a burst of anger and resentment surfaced during tuning.

It started when Shipen asked David Lynch to remove his three pieces of clothing he had left in a heap on the stage. David refused. Shipen became furious, stood up and said, “That’s it. I’m not playing tonight!” and stomped off. Oh boy, another crisis. The rest of us sat somewhat shocked and began to pray. At 7:30 we went to change and luckily Shipen had returned. When we entered to give the performance we saw there were only about 14 people at the concert, but we went ahead with it anyway. At dinner after the concert, Shipen stated angrily that Roswell would be our last performance and that maybe we should just go back to New York City and get it together. He also said we needed to pray about what our responsibilities were, and basically expressed the fact he was fed up with our overall lack of responsibility. The other issue developed over David wanting to visit his mother in Los Angeles. It was long and involved, but the gist of it was we had visited everyone else’s parents but due to time constraints, we weren’t planning on visiting his mother. Later, Shipen and David had a long, emotional discussion. Shipen shared his view of what happened in his letter to Canon West:

The other major problem is David Lynch’s mother. She is Roman Catholic, and lives in California. Her husband died only months ago, and she is upset with David’s religious enthusiasm, especially since it is founded outside the Catholic faith. David has been extremely guilty and covetous of things concerning his family and has caused us all grief because of his withdrawal into long stretches of guilt. Because of his Jansenist background in a boarding school in England he has had an amazing amount of fear it instilled in him which causes him to lose confidence and again depart company mentally. He, in seeing the Symphony visit parents of nearly every member of the family, has grown envious and somewhat bitter since we were planning not to go to California because of the time factor of making such a large sweep. It has taken us five weeks to get from Houston to Roswell. After a rugged breaking down he admitted that he was afraid to ask us if we would do him a favor and go to attempt to pacify his mother. I said I would be more than willing to do that personal favor, erasing the fear. But reminded him of our obligation to you and
so we seek your advice on this matter… In my own lack of confidence, already I have not instituted the proper degree of trust in my brothers and sisters, but am earnestly praying for the ability to do that. [end of excerpt]
July 22nd, Mary Magdalene’s Day. Early in the morning we had a strange visitor. Sherman, a Pentecostal minister came in and told us that the Lord had given him a burden for us saying, “Don’t let Satan bring discouragement. Remain steadfast in the Lord, be prepared and obey God’s will.”

The church then gave us box lunches to take with us on the road as we drove off to Roswell, New Mexico. That evening, we parked by the Pecos River for the night. After doing chores and taking walks and cooking, we met around 6:00 and held an Agape service. During the liturgy our broken pieces were gathered together through confessions and absolution, and we went before God together as a family, asking forgiveness. We laid hands on Larry and Steve asking for God’s blessing and that they receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Then we shared the peace, broke bread and shared wine in communion. The service ended in our singing a hymn together.

Shipen shared our breakthrough experience to Canon West:

The family, after weeks of undercurrent conflicts, finally on St. Mary Magdalene’s day, broke into tears as we laid hands on Larry and Steve to receive the Holy Spirit. We had a two and a half hour ceremony agape on the plains in New Mexico, and blessed the Lord for conquering what seemed to be an impossible situation, and by giving me the confidence to pray with them for the infilling.  Already our prayers for greater trust are being handled as the Lord insists we
come directly to him together for all things. This is more like how our family began, and we had somewhat missed our actual association with Him. He wants us to come boldly, and we are reluctant as usual.

I, too, wrote of this special experience in my journal:

Laying hands on them, we prayed and wept and shared peace together…We found a place long forgotten with our Lord. Everyone’s faith and hope was restored. It seemed as if it had been such a long time that we had been away from that kind of closeness.

Afterwards we shared a glorious feast of wine, vodka, sauerbraten, spatzel and red cabbage. As we ate, we talked about love and people we care about and I felt relieved we were drawn together again. Later, I lay snuggled up in my sleeping bag, gazing out the bus window at the star filled desert sky, wrapped in a feeling of love and warmth as I listened to the soft cadence of breathing from my sleeping family.

On Sunday, July 23rd we arrived in Roswell, New Mexico and performed at St. Andrews Church in Roswell, New Mexico for about 150 people. It was a two-hour concert, which seemed to go relatively well, though the crowd was somewhat reserved.

Afterward, we drove over to the Poor Clare Monastery to play for cloistered nuns there. We filed into a tiny reception room that had lattice like iron doors behind which were solid panels. Once we had quickly set up and were ready to play, Mother Mary Francis opened up the huge panels and before us was a sea of beautiful, shy faces smiling from beneath their veils. This concert was a deeply moving experience. We played: How Long is a Little While, He was wrapped in Flesh, I Wander and then thought we were done since we were only supposed to play for 15 minutes. However, the mother superior then asked us to play more so we continued for a half hour longer. The nuns responded with a song for us about the resurrection, which was exquisite in its simplicity and moved me to tears. Then, smiling silently, they slipped small gifts to us underneath the grill. I received a beautiful little card with delicate pictures and scripture versus and poetry handwritten in beautiful calligraphy [which I still have, tucked inside my Book of Common Prayer]. We laughed and were very moved by the closeness we felt – as if we were one big family. We joined them for Compline before reluctantly leaving.

On July 24th, we received the sad news that Larry’s grandmother had died. He and David Lynch left to attend the funeral of his grandmother, promising to meet us in Pecos. In the meantime, we headed for Ruidoso in central New Mexico where we met Father John Minton of St. Luke’s on the Mountain. He insisted we visit an artist who was a close friend of his named Peter Rogers who was the nephew of the artist Peter Herd. Peter graciously welcomed us and showed us around his studio. I can still visualize one painting he had just finished of a man on a horse riding in the sky with mountains in the background and a huge moon. He offered us drinks and then led us to a beautiful camping spot by a meandering river surrounded by mountains near his home.

Artist Peter Rogers

I felt an immediate rapport and kinship with Peter, his wife and his gregarious children. They welcomed us into their lives letting us feel completely at home with them. Peter was eager to share our music with the local community of artists and kept insisting we give a “little concert” “just for a few friends.” Shipen insisted that he didn’t feel comfortable performing with both David and Larry being gone. Nevertheless, Peter surprised us by inviting what seemed like the whole community of San Petricio for a concert the next evening. Feeling pressured into it, we agreed to do our best and faced the strangest assortment of people we ever played for: artists, cowboys, a nurse, a hermit, a yogi, priests, atheists, deist ranchers, young and old, wealthy businessmen, dancers, housewives, actors and other artsy types. We were just as surprised as they were when the music held up even with only six of us playing. Shipen joked that the angels were sweating it out though.

During our brief stay we grew very close to this delightful family. Peter and Shipen had some wonderful conversations together. I enjoyed relaxing and spending time with Peter's wife Carol, children Gabriela, David, Peter the younger and their dogs and cats. Alas, too soon we had to leave and with hugs all around, we drove straight to Pecos, New Mexico. When we arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery, Jim, Larry and David Lynch were there to greet us and we were just in time for vespers.