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.

Broken in the Crucible of Community Life

Our rag tag family of new disciples

I often wondered if we had met under different circumstances or in different times would we ever have become a community? During those cold winter days, a gradual dull aching pain of increasing personal isolation signaled the spiritual changes taking place in our community. For the first time in my life, I came face to face with the pain and isolation that had driven me for so long. I felt like God was breaking me in the crucible of our common life together. It was like a marriage to which I came - ragged and burned by the world, lonely and searching for alternatives. I was thrown into this amazing experiment to live out a disciple’s life alongside other human beings. It was a very rich experience yet also a very tortuous one. As each of us grew in our newfound Christianity, it was a struggle to determine God’s vision for our group.

Shipen wrote about the difficulties of living in our community in his journal:

"Exactly why the Lord placed this family together I do not know immediately – but I might speculate. When I get up in the morning and come out of what privacy I am allowed in my tent, I look around at the other tents and ponder what’s in them. Those people, I often think – I would never have chosen as friends – they don’t look like friends I would have, they don’t act the way “my” friends would act – there are even girls among them, and some fat ones too – what happened to those days when I could lock my door, cook myself a steak, turn on the TV or just turn on and groove all by myself?

In a word what happened to me as with all the other people here was a common response to the calling of the person of Jesus Christ – an interruption of some of the world’s most scaly life styles – there was once a part of us from all parts of the life of sin – we lived it and preached it in drugs, in sex, in gratification, in willful disobedience, in applause, and in false glory – we were of the “God is dead” generation of thought – knowing we could be better and more just Gods than God himself. We were unknowingly hell bound in every conceivable persecution of the church.

We felt justified, however, because we would freely make mention concerning the relative importance of Jesus as one of many fine teachers of life – but the idea of admitting and acknowledging in Jesus as the Son of God – the one and only, seemed ridiculous and unfair – and so we were left alone to wind deeper and deeper into the interiors of our minds in hopes that we would emerge glorious, free, and self realized Christs.

Many of us advocated and studied endless systems of rationalization from Buddhism to Judaism in hopes we could be convinced of our own glory and identity as power figures. It was the most incredible kind of selfishness we were involved in – it was, by first hand experience, the deceptive and powerful mind of all things against Jesus, “that spirit of Anti Christ,” that so easily can seduce lost sheep.

Praise God, Praise the Lord, Jesus had mercy on us, he changed us, he took us hanging off the mountain and lovingly captured our souls – we knew perfect trust, we knew we were sinners, and not Gods. There have been many group tears since the first hours we knew of Jesus as a living reality – A deeply human and totally Divine person.

But then came the predicament of the process of salvation, of sanctification, of penitence, and our family was formed. Is it possible for Christians to live intimately with each other without touching – knowing the deepest inadequacies and failures – the bothersome snoring and the annoyances of personality differences?

It was in this question that the Lord has brought to us a deeper concern. Is it possible for all parts of the Christian body to live together without condemnation or judgment, once concerning the ministry of another and one ear at odds with the eye. Paul bade us carefully to watch the spirit of contention concerning the law in interpretation – and yet we find ourselves being judged by this or that group of Christians. We have been told by every part of Christ’s body, that all other parts are wrong – just as in our family we tend to make those accusations toward each other – more often forgetting Jesus Christ’s saving grace than remembering it. But this we are being taught by our “constant” living association – that we must depend on the Lord more and more, for it is in our obstinence and certainty that we fail in the smallest human needs of honest love.

The more group confessions, the deeper we go into personality confrontations and pride barriers, but praise the Lord, he soon takes us from our battles and shows us peace – and we know him more and can love him more and forget ourselves a little and learn charity, and learn not to depend on private aims and because 10 of us occupy 400 square feet of loft space, we are learning how to concern ourselves with the needs of others.

The Lord knows, here, in this situation there is no room for the superficiality of one hour worship sessions, we discover what happens after everyone comes home from church and what goes on “outside of Christ,” what secrets there are, and what hidden fears and blackness – things the world, by locking its doors at night, refuses to see – things that actually keep us from the Love of God – the real devices of Satan that come to separate us from the perfect Love, the Love that has its doors open continually.

We would often comment on how, because we live in an attic, we are not allowed, by law, to have a door since we cannot block access to the roof in case of fire, the Lord is demonstrating to us the needlessness of locks and barricades, and of his Divine protection in case of physical danger. We are not afraid of those things that might come in through the door – because mostly they are also lost sheep and in need as we were. No doors, no locks – Praise the Lord. And in the heart of New York’s most crime ridden section."

As Shipen explained, it was difficult living in such cramped quarters with so many other people that we, for the most part, would not have chosen as friends. In addition, we were so young - some of us barely out of high school! There remained a great deal of personal growth and maturity that needed to take place. As it was, our focus became learning how to live together more graciously: sharing blankets, clothing and food; being quiet when others were still sleeping; moving less bear-like and more gracefully within our crowded room; keeping things neat and picked up; and being more sensitive to one another’s feelings and personal space.

Shortly after Christmas, a strange and sad thing happened. With structured music rehearsals and regular planned services and prayer sessions, the richness of our early impromptu musical experiences grew more elusive. Finally, one day (as Shipen was fond of saying later on) we sat there in the Loft with our instruments and realized they were out of tune. In a strange way, it was the "day the music died." Thus began the tediously slow process of learning how to tune our instruments, create our own songs, and write music without the miraculous ability to be “one” and to think alike. Was this because we were developing personal boundaries? Was it because we lost our spontaneity? Whatever it was, we fell to arguing and struggling over chords and melodies. We fought over words to a song or got angry when we couldn’t work out a section that used to flow out so easily. I remember once David Lynch came in all ecstatic about a new song he’d just written on his guitar. I listened to it and went, Yuck. I hate that! I felt sad that we’d lost something that had been so incredibly beautiful and precious. Eventually, we found our way back to that sacred experience but it was not an easy process. On an emotional level, our family was experiencing the discordant strains of clashing personalities, something that would create serious problems in the days ahead…But more on that later...

What remained from our former commune days was an open door policy, which sometimes brought in strange visitors. This led to odd, sometimes comical encounters. Once a drunken man insisted he was a friend of Stephanie’s so Shipen invited him in. Poor Steph had to put up with his rantings and advances until finally someone returned from the kitchen and ushered him out. Another time we were visited by a crazy Central Park prophet who marched in shouting out scripture, demanding that God wanted us to come with him to the park. His idea was we should play our music and he would preach to the crowds. After a firm, thanks-but-no-thanks, the men sent him packing.

Stephanie recalls another unusual set of visitors:

"One night a group of Satanists showed up for dinner. As I recall, they had met David Lynch in Meisner's bookstore where he was working. These uninvited guests availed themselves of our world without doors and entered with an explicit message. Their mission was to tell us we were making a terrible mistake and they were going to "bring us back into the fold". It seemed that Shipen, who was by far the most intellectual of us, engaged in a short word duel with the visitors after which they left. I seem to recall, Shipen gave David L. a strong admonishment that in the future, he needed to be a bit wiser with the details of our world and lives in the Loft. And David, well, he might remember this a little differently or more vividly, but, in his care-free attitude, everyone was a friend and therefore welcome at the Loft. Wisdom, was definitely something we all acquired the hard way. "