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.

The Bus Days

Jesus said to his followers,
“Go everywhere in the world,
and tell the Good News to everyone.”
Mark 16:15 (NCV )

Our first bus

By April, we had saved enough money to purchase a 1965 GMC school bus along with basic provisions. We bought a black, cast iron pot bellied stove and a small stove with a propane gas range. The men designed and built cabinets and storage bins, which we loaded up with 100 pounds of brown rice, assorted dried beans, flour, sugar, miso paste, pasta, canned goods and containers of water. The only flaw in the kitchen cabinet design was that you had to lift off the counter top to reach in and scoop out the beans, rice or flour. It was not especially practical to be rolling a piecrust then realize you needed a little more flour!

While we women sewed curtains, the men painted the entire bus white. On one side, in huge blue block lettering, they painted the words: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” On the front were the words “Jesus is Lord” and on the back, they painted the ominous message: “If thou hadst known even thou, the things that belong unto thy peace, but now they are hid from thine eyes.”

Those last days were filled with purpose and conviction. It was exciting to prepare for such an important journey. Where would we go? What would we do for money? How would we support ourselves? All these concerns were turned over to the Lord. Our future was in His hands.

Like true disciples we gave away all our personal possessions except for a very limited amount of clothing: just what would fit in a knapsack. Still a flower child at heart this wasn’t a big deal for me but it was much harder for Roger and Claudia who had an apartment full of possessions. As Claudia recalls:

"It came to this point where everyone decided to give everything away. I remember I brought what I had on my back. We gave everything else away. I walked out of our apartment with nothing but a plastic lounge chair left in it. The only other thing we brought was our dog Shitzi."

We were disciples of the Lord in every sense and this meant giving over our whole lives to Him. Luke 12:22-32: …do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storerooms or barn; yet God feeds them…Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like on of these…seek the Kingdom and these things will be given you…Sell your possession and give to the poor…your treasure is in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Our earnings were pooled together. We had $800 and beyond that, we would trust in God to provide. Finally, after months of preparation the day for our departure arrived. It was May 2, 1971. We loaded our clothes, food, instruments, books and bedding onto the bus, ready to head off on our pilgrimage, destination unknown. We said our goodbyes to Steve Gambill, Stephen Raphalsky and our friend Annie. It was a time of high adventure and new beginnings. The Loft we had lived in would soon be torn down. One chapter in our lives had finished and before us lay blank open pages.

May 1971 before leaving NYC

May 2, 1971 was a beautiful spring day. The weather, like our lives, was cloudy yet and filled with possibilities. We gathered outside the Loft early that morning for a final prayer and photographs with friends before the ten of us climbed on board the bus. Pictured above from left to right starting with the top row are Steve Gambill (who stayed behind and joined us later), David Karasek, David Lynch, "Ariel" Phillip Dross, Shipen, Stephen Raphalsky (our frequent visitor), Sarah Benstein, "Shishonee" (Katheryn) Ruetenik, Naomi Goldman, Annie Rawlins (another long time visitor), Stephanie Arje, Claudia and Roger Gumbiner (not pictured as he was taking the picture) and their little Shitzu dog.

Before leaving New York, we drove to Queens to say goodbye to our dear friends from the Korean church. On the way, a policeman pulled up behind the bus and motioned for us to pull over. I was a little bit apprehensive as he approached the bus, wondering what we’d done wrong. His first words were, “Do you really believe what it says?” pointing to the words on the side of the bus. “Yes!” “Good!” he replied and then shared how he’d received his own call to Christ. After a brief discussion, we shook hands and with a smile he wished us God’s blessing on our journey. He clambered off the bus and stood next to his cruiser, waving as we drove off. Praise God and thank goodness we didn’t get a ticket!

Our Queens church family had gathered at their church to send us off. I would miss their friendship, the potluck dinners, praying and worshipping with them, and the lovely Korean hymns we had learned. With their nurturing and loving intervention, I had grown in my walk with the Lord. It was bittersweet to leave our gentle brothers Gene, Herb, Kahn, Enoch and Leong, and Sisters Margaret, Carol and Mrs. Sterns. Would we ever see them again? After hugs and tears, Mrs. Sterns prayed that the angel of grace would walk among us to protect us and bless our travels, then off we went.

Shipen carefully maneuvered the bus through the narrow streets of Harlem on our way to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It seemed like it would never fit through the rows of parked cars crowding the streets but somehow it did. Entering Spanish Harlem, we lowered the bus windows shaking our Sanctus bells at startled strangers. Another new tradition! With bells still ringing, we pulled up to the towering gothic giant - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Canon West had agreed to meet us at 3:00 p.m. at St. Martin’s chapel. Each wrapped up in our own thoughts, we filed silently into the chapel and sat cross legged on the ornate rug in front of steps leading to the altar. Meanwhile, the sanctuary was filling with hundreds of people for a special service being held in celebration of Canon West’s 30 years of service. I prayed silently for our journey, asking God to guide us in the days ahead. Suddenly there was a loud blast of trumpets from the massive Cathedral organ. At that exact moment, Canon West swept into the room dressed in a flowing black robe. What a perfect dramatic entrance! Immediately, he instructed us to kneel on the steps in front of him for a blessing. In his typically solemn yet profound way, he stretched his arm over us in blessing as he read from the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make them an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let them sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that they may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Then he spun around and was gone. I had heard these words many times as a child, but on that day they held special meaning. I felt empowered and commissioned to a Divine purpose! I prayed that I could do my best to follow God’s calling embodied in those powerful words.

Quietly we filed out of the chapel and joined hundreds of other people already seated in the main sanctuary. Stephanie joined the Sisters from the Community of the Holy Spirit who were marching in the opening procession.

"I got to be crucifer for the Sisters in the procession. It was the most awesome experience for me - the JAP. I was so honored! When the ceremony was over, we processed out of the cathedral with such pomp, dignity and solemnity - into the courtyard where there was a totally different celebration. It struck me as so odd, like some sort of oxymoron."

Bishop Donegan led the special service honoring Canon West, which was full of elaborate high church Episcopal pomp and ceremony. There were processions, music by the Cathedral Boy’s Choir, speeches and readings including a special poem written by Canon West’s closest friend, Madeleine L’Engle. Then the Cathedral organist played a glorious anthem composed in Canon West’s honor performed on the magnificent pipe organ. Afterwards there was a reception at which Canon West was presented with special gifts and many, many congratulatory letters.

Eager to be on our way, we left the reception and gathered on the bus, saying goodbye to Madeline, Violet Drakes and others. Suddenly Canon West swept on board in his flowing vestments swinging a silver pot of incense on a long chain. The bus filled with the ancient smell of myrrh as Father West solemnly christened the bus, chanting and swinging the smoking incense in a sacrament of blessing. I felt awed at his incredible sense of timing and delightful theatrical flair. As I watched him proceed slowly through the bus, I thought about Christ’s admonition to his disciples as they went out to spread the gospel. I wondered if they too felt this curious mixture of excitement, wonder and apprehension. I still didn't know exactly what our mission would be. As Canon West left, Shipen promised to write and call to “keep him informed.” Little did we know Canon West would be a lifeline in the difficult days that lay ahead…

Just before we pulled away, our dear friend Rodney Kirk hopped on board. With a broad smile and sparkling eyes, he presented us with a silver wine chalice, explaining that it had been a special gift to him upon his ordination. Our farewell was bittersweet as we waved to our dear friends at the Cathedral. Then we were off! As the bus lurched and bumped along, I felt a delicious sense of adventure and freedom. This is it! We’re on our way!

I ran to the back of the bus and peered out the back window at the huge gothic structure, gazing fondly at the carved gargoyles in its turrets and the beautiful spires of the cathedral stretching upward into the cloud filled sky. What was it like for those early Christians, setting off without any itinerary or plan, leaving everything up to God? Did they feel the way I did - both exhilarated and humbled at the same time. Thus began an adventure that would transform our lives in ways we could not even imagine.

Claudia Gumbiner, Shipen and Roger Gumbiner on the bus

By the time we set out it was late in the afternoon. Roger and then Shipen drove for a while, then parked at a roadside park. We ate dinner, prayed together, and then climbed exhausted into our sleeping bags. My mind was spinning and it took me quite awhile to finally fall asleep.

May 3rd was a rather chilly spring morning. It was the first day of our new adventure and brought us to our third unexpected lesson involving money. David Lynch recalls the events leading up to that fateful morning:

"It began on the afternoon of our going away visit to St Johns. I already had all the community funds in my pockets -- and here we were leaving the bus (in the Cathedral lot) and going out and into Harlem -- OK only round the corner and into the Cathedral - BUT I was not very familiar with the area and freaked when Stephanie right at the door of the bus handed me her purse and said "Here, this is the money Shishonee and I earned from the supermarket" ($400 cash). And off she went into the Cathedral. I stood in the bus with her purse in hand thinking I really didn't want to carry any more "cash" on me. I looked around the bus - opened a couple of drawers thinking where can I put this that will be safe till we leave? I turned to the pot bellied stove - opened the top and it was completely laid full of coal. I thought - no one would ever look in here - I'll leave it here and then retrieve it after the service when we are leaving town. Thinking no more about it I put the little purse under a big hunk of coal, closed the stove top and exited the bus "locking" it by slamming the door closed -- "I must remember to get that after!"

After the service we were invited over to the Synod House for "Episcopal goodies" - which of course I do recall always also meant some fine sherry. After the meal and the goodbyes prayers and good wishes on our imminent, Shipenicly named, "Abrahamic Journey" - We all piled into the bus and with Ship' driving, and our Sanctus bells ringing, we headed north - This was May the second 1971. We continued to drive north through the rest of the rapidly cooling afternoon and on into the night. By eight or nine o'clock, the exciting events of the day had us all pretty wacked out and we pulled into the first of many Trees highway "rest stops", this one off the "Taconic Parkway or the Sawmill? - one of them - they both head north - I know we were not on the Thruway. Anyway we pealed off the road and very quickly we were all bedded down for the night. The next thing I knew I was merging into consciousness and peering up over my very comfortable sleeping bag at the back of the bus, and wafting thru the bus was a wonderful combined smell of porridge, coffee, homemade bread and warmth. The bus was toasty. I was just beginning to "wake up" when I heard Stephanie from the front of the bus making inquiries. "has anyone seen my ----- and then "David do you have my little leather purse?" -- Suddenly promises and memories came flooding back into my head and I leaped out of the bag and stumbled to the kitchen looking aghast at the potbelly stove whose metal skin was actually glowing bright red --- "Oh holy bugger!" or some such epithet ran through my mind as I vainly used the tool to open the cover to reveal the roaring fire inside the stove. I even remember looking in the fire grate underneath where bright sparkly ashes were accumulating!

Shortly after that, after checking that the main money stash was safe, I told our fledgling community on wheels that about half of our funds was now "missing" relating the story of my "good intentions" to my incredulous brothers and sisters and admitted to my folly. I do remember it occasioned an informal prayer session - and a confirmation that we were indeed stepping out in faith - and then I believe I was formally (perhaps as a punishment of sorts?) confirmed as the community treasurer. From then on I did keep pretty accurate records of our financial activities!

Ariel bless him, comforted me as we looked into the flames of the radiating red stove that morning with the idea that we could take the ashes to the US treasury Department and be reimbursed!!!!!"