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.

Nomadic Life

Shipen driving the bus

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another,
God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12 )

Worship and music became the mainstay of our nomadic lives. Wherever we went, whomever we were with, we held daily prayer and worship services. Though we might quarrel or argue, during worship our lives burned with an intense faith. God continued to provide direct revelations and prophecies as we struggled to follow Him. We lived and breathed the gospel. We poured ourselves into prayer and confessions, into daily worship and song, into music given over to glorifying His name. This fire burned bright and I was filled with a constant, overwhelming, almost insatiable desire to be nearer to Jesus. To strangers who encountered us on the road, we must have seemed absurdly obsessed and overzealous. Every move we made we checked in with God to be sure we were doing His will and following His plan. Was this what God wanted for us at this time? When someone suggested we visit a certain Christian community this was always turned over to God in prayer. At other times, it seemed like sheer serendipity when the bus broke down stranding us somewhere.

Despite our cramped quarters I was truly in love with our nomadic way of life. A gypsy at heart, it was everything I had always dreamed of! I loved traveling to new places and experiencing new things, never knowing where we would end up next. I loved our family who had come to mean so much to me in such a short time. After feeling like an orphan for so long, I truly felt I had found a loving family with those ten other souls.

Our next stop was the House of Life at 2798 Delaware Avenue in Kenmore, New York. We were immediately taken to meet a very special elderly woman who lived nearby at the Wheelchair Home, Anna (Mrs. David) B. Van Dyck. We crowded into her small room in the nursing home. Sitting in her wheelchair, her face was framed in wisps of white hair and her thin crinkled face radiated joy and laughter. Gathered around her, she proceeded to weave stories and what an amazing storyteller she was!

One story I will never forget was her near-death experience. She explained that it all started when she had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. As the doctors and nurses were standing over her, she found herself floating up by the ceiling and she could see her body lying on the bed below. She heard them say, “I’m sorry…she’s dead.” The next thing she knew, she was going through a dark tunnel. At the end of the tunnel she saw a bright light. After she passed through the darkness, she saw old friends and family (who had died). They were walking toward her smiling and welcoming her. Looking directly into the brilliant light and she thought she could make out another figure. As she went closer, she knew at once it was Jesus. He drew her close and immediately she felt enveloped in His divine love and peace, a sensation more powerful than any she had ever felt before. The Lord told her that he loved her and would always be with her. After a moment, He said, “Anna, your work is not done yet.” Reluctantly she realized she had to go back. All of a sudden she was back in her hospital bed waking up. She explained that this experience strengthened her faith and a given her a renewed mission in life. Wow!

At the end of our visit, she asked if she could see the bus? Roger left to get it while the rest of us said our goodbyes. Hearing the unmistakable sound of the approaching bus, Sister Anna wheeled herself over to the window and leaned out. She bounced up and down in her wheelchair, clapped her hands together and laughingly exclaimed, “Now I know just how to picture you when I pray for you! Don’t worry my dears, I’ll pray to God to send angels to watch over each wheel of your bus!” I felt sure that she had, in fact, petitioned God to send guardian angels for us as we never had an accident. (Too bad she forgot the engine because we did suffer numerous breakdowns over the years!)

As we drove away, I couldn’t get Sister Anna’s story out of my mind. It was so vivid and so amazing. Would God ever come to me like that? Would I ever experience that kind of miracle that would forever erase any of my lingering doubts?

We left the House of Life and drove across the border to Canada, stopping to visit Niagara Falls and play tourists for a day. Then we continued on to Bathurst Street Church where we met people from two visiting Christian communities, the House of Emmaus and the House of Life who were in town for a big festival. They invited us to come visit their communities. Once again John and Lucille seemed to appear out of thin air and we talked about our recent exorcism experience and shared good fellowship with them.

That night, we attended a huge “Maranatha Praise and Power” festival. Walking into the huge stadium, I was struck by how people were acting like a bunch of sheep. They stood with their arms raised into the air and glazed, mesmerized looks on their faces. On stage, a preacher dressed head to toe in white, was gesturing and shouting as he jabbed the air and strutted around the stage. Coming from my quiet, Midwestern sensibilities, this noisy charismatic show struck me as deeply offensive. We found seats toward the back of the stadium and sat down. As I listened and prayed, I grew more and more judgmental – this was definitely not my cup of tea! The parade of gaudy outfits and loud, overly dramatic preaching was a complete turnoff. The whole event seemed like a weird freak show full of a monstrous charismatic irreverence that was very disturbing. Alienated and disgusted, midway through all ten of us stood up and left. We drove directly to the House of Emmaus at 25 Draper Street in Toronto.

That night, Shipen wrote Canon West about our adventures:

Dear Father West:

Peace be with you, and love from God the father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

I would that there were many days to spend in discussing the ways in which our Lord has prepared glory to God, and how His gentle hand has guided us safely through hard and heavy danger by air powers and land forces.

Once in a soft countryside having a woman delivered of 10 demons under a head she had secretly covenanted with – thanking the Lord she can sing praises in new tongues.

But then dealing in praise and power charisma – more fearful for the deception of appointing duties for the “spirit” to fill and to operate in. Something very near a frightful disrespect known now as “Jesus Nazism” – the Jesus power movement, the asking for and use of spiritual gifts as if their acquisition were the fruit itself – a fearful lot, able to defeat saint’s words of love, and carry away new born sheep lofting on the promise of experience.

Priests, by way of holding secrets of Enoch – getting arrayed for a display of knowledge on Judgment day.

Evangelists claiming hold over sheepfolds by clinging to power and “absolute” security in “now there is no condemnation tactics to enforce liberty of all the devil’s ways.

Would the Lord had me in a monastery, father, that I could pray for another deliverance of Israel from Egypt...
-Yours in faith, Shipen

Over the next few days, we joined with the House of Emmaus community for bible studies, prayers, shared meals and we helped them fix up their house. We cleaned bathrooms, washed windows and sewed curtains. One afternoon, a young man stumbled onto the bus saying he was having a bad trip. We gathered around him in prayer and we stayed with him until the drugs wore off. He asked God to help him with his addiction, and eventually he left.

Our new friends John and Lucille from Love-Inn popped by often, fascinated with our group. We were to meet many people over the course of our travels that were similarly attracted to our odd lifestyle. At the end of our visit, John came rushing in brimming with excitement. It was a shock when he excitedly revealed that he felt God had called them to join us on the bus! My immediate thought was that I didn't see how we could squeeze anyone else into our traveling home, let alone another married couple. Was this God’s will? Confused and uncertain, we decided to fast and pray about this new development. After a long talk, it was decided it was time for a retreat.

We left Toronto and drove to a secluded spot in an unused campground and parked the bus next to a wooded area surrounded by a vast meadow. For the next four days we fasted, prayed, read scripture, talked, and held services. We prayed asking God if it was His will for John and Lucille to joing our community or not? We also asked the Lord to heal our differences and bind up our wounds.

After just two weeks on the road, things had grown tense on the bus. Petty arguments and disagreements left all of us feeling cross. Thoughtless habits like leaving dirty socks on the floor were just plain annoying. For me it was getting frustrating to lay awake all night listening to Stephanie and Shipen snore so loudly that despite earplugs and a pillow around my head I couldn’t sleep. It was really getting on my nerves!

It was difficult living with ten people and a dog on a 30 foot-bus. There was no privacy and no personal space. And now two more people wanted to join and they were not exactly small people either! There just wasn’t room. During the crash-pad days of the Loft, it didn’t matter as much who came and went. Now that we were a band of traveling disciples, it was important to me that we remain a stable family. So that first night in the meadow I prayed for answers about John and Lucille.

Shipen called a family meeting. We would have to agree to certain ground rules. First, everyone needed to pitch in and do chores. Second, we would have to figure out how to keep the bus clean and tidy. After a long discussion, we each decided on different jobs. David Karasek graciously took on the task of cleaning the kerosene lantern globes and setting them up every evening after the sun went down (we had no electricity). It was a tedious, dirty undertaking. Every night he had to clean the sooty black carbon off ten globes, trim down the wicks, add fresh kerosene, then wipe up all the spilled kerosene. Ugh. Shipen, Roger, David Lynch and Ariel took turns driving. David Lynch had been given the job of treasurer and financial wizard he kept meticulous financial records of all expenditures, income, and debt. We women did most of the baking, sewing and cooking though Shipen, Steven and Ariel often enjoyed creating delicious ”feasts”. (Shipen and Ariel were excellent gourmet cooks and though Shipen tried to teach me, I never enjoyed cooking like he and Ariel did). We all took turns cleaning and washing up. It was agreed that dishes would be immediately washed and put away, counters cleaned and floors swept after each meal. We still used chopsticks. Water was a precious commodity and this cut down on having to wash tons of silverware. Sarah was the seamstress. I kept The Chronicles, our official diaries, filling the pages every evening with the day’s events.

Shipen stressed it was imperative to keep our small space clean and neat with everything stored away in its proper place. “A place for everything and everything in its place” had a Zen-like ring to it. It certainly helped that Sarah and Ariel were neatnicks who struggled valiantly to keep the bus clean. Upon rising, everyone would struggle into their clothes inside the privacy of their sleeping bags. Beds were quickly converted into a dining room table. As soon as I woke up, I would roll up my old flannel sleeping bag, wrap it tightly into an embroidered cover, and place it on the back platform bed to be used as a bolster. My “bed” was on top of the stove and kitchen counter. This didn’t protect me from the snoring but at least I had a great view out of the bus windows. Sometimes I would pitch a small pup tent away from the bus to get a good night’s sleep! People often asked us how in the world we managed to live constantly knocking elbows and smelling each other’s bad breath! It wasn’t easy and it was downright stressful. Sometimes, it was only through God’s grace that I got through the day.

By the fourth day of the fast, I was feeling weak and physically depleted. I barely had strength to go for a walk. Everyone looked pale and sickly except, curiously, Shipen and Roger. Only recently, Claudia explained why. While the rest of us were soldiering on with our total fast, Shipen and Roger were sneaking off to eat hamburgers at a nearby restaurant! Ah, the sins of human frailty.

David K., Shipen and Roger

Finally, on Sunday, we broke our fast with a simple communion service in the middle of the meadow. After four days without a shower I felt grubby and dirty, weak and sinful (some of us more sinful than others). Sitting amidst the sweet smelling wild flowers that radiated God's gracious goodness we held communion. What a contrast! The bright sunshine spilled over us as we sat around a clean, beautiful embroidered white tablecloth.

Roger and Claudia

We passed around the wine filled chalice that Rodney Kirk had given us the day we left New York and broke off pieces of unleavened communion bread to share. As I took communion, I felt weak and confused, like God was trying to tell me something but the connection on my end was too fuzzy and gunked up for me to hear what he was saying. What is it you’re trying to say, Lord? Is it Your will for John and Lucille to come with us? Please guide us to do your will.

Later that afternoon, I picked dandelion leaves and dug up the burdock and Queen Ann’s Lace roots that Shipen insisted would make a wonderful wild stew. He had been reading a book by Euell Gibbons about harvesting wild foods from the land called Stalking the Wild Asparagus. The stew tasted delicious but made us really sick (probably from the burdock root). I’m glad we didn’t add wild mushrooms!
Although we still had not received a clear answer to our prayers about John and Lucille, we agreed that if they were to join us, it was not yet the right time. Would their ministry be with us? Or without us? We prayed for God’s will and waited for a sign. Should we stay or go? Where? Later, we ate a supper of beans and rice and continued our prayer vigil late into the night.

The following morning the sound of a huge tractor mower woke us up. A man was mowing the field, moving back and forth across the meadow and getting closer and closer to the bus. God had answered our prayers. Clearly it was time for us to move on! Recently, Claudia recalled how that lawn mower became a symbol of the Lord’s word for her and Roger at various junctions in their lives. When it became clear that the Lord was speaking to them about something, Roger would remark, “that’s our lawn mower.”

Hurriedly, we left our meadow retreat. Someone recalled that at the House of Emmaus they’d told us about an unusual Christian farming community of Hutterites in Canada. It seemed like as good a destination as any.

Shipen drove west through Canada until we arrived at the Hutterite Community just in time for tea. Thus began a new chapter in our lives that would affect us in ways we could never have imagined…