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.

Canons and Cathedrals

Canon Edward Nason West

David Karasek describes our introduction to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and a man who became key to our new found faith:

"In December, a priest named Father Rodney Kirk came to visit the Loft. Shipen had met him at a party and invited him back to the Loft. All kinds of people had come up to the Loft, but this was our first honest to God priest. Rodney was very easy going and impressed us with his great sense of humor. After a couple of visits he said, “You should come up to the church where I serve.” So we said, “Ok, let’s go. When?” “Why not now?” So off we all marched from the Loft, barefoot, up Broadway, all the way to 112th street, a distance of about 5 miles. We were expecting a moderately sized church. Instead, turning the corner on Amsterdam Avenue, we were facing what was then the largest Cathedral church on the planet, as yet unfinished, but consuming the entire view down the street. As we completed the journey, the west wall of the church completely engulfed us in sculpture and gothic tracery.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine

We entered as ant-sized beings beside its 60 foot bronze doors, and just drifted down that immense, majestic gothic nave with its 120-foot gothic spires. Filling the space was an amazing sound – the voices of a boy’s choir singing Palestrina accompanied by an organ with over 8000 pipes. The span of the church was so long that the main altar was almost not visible from the narthex. Marching from one end to the other was a procession, as if for a medieval king, with acolytes and ministers dressed in regal vestments carrying huge gold crosses and swinging incense burners. Like a choreographer, one man, dressed completely in black, was directing the procession, himself falling to the back, carrying a large, solid gold scepter.

This was Canon Edward Nason West, one of the most influential ministers not only of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, but also in the entire Episcopal Church of America at that time. As Canon West and his practicing procession first noticed us, we just stood there with our mouths open. It was a moment of stark contrast. Here we were ten straggly kids with long tangled hair, torn bell bottoms, homemade dresses, Nehru shirts and beads standing barefoot on the marble floor with its bronze plaques and there they were completely decked in gold vestments and black velvet. After a few moments Canon West just continued the rehearsal as if nothing had happened as we stood there quietly observing. We were so taken by this majestic place and this show of pageantry that we decided to attend a service there. At the same time Canon West had heard about us from Father Kirk and was so intrigued that he sought some way to learn more about us. The opportunity came a short time later when Canon West fell and broke his arm. Father Kirk knew that Shipen was looking for work, and so he invited him to be Canon West’s butler. In this way he would find out “who were those seven, singing pilgrims, really.”

For several weeks Shipen cooked and cleaned for Canon West at his apartment on the Cathedral grounds. Shipen, newly converted, saw Canon West as both a mentor and father, someone to go to with his concerns, confessions or for advice. The rest of us took to walking uptown on Sunday mornings to enjoy the pageantry of the incredibly elaborate high church services at the Cathedral. Afterwards, we sang and prayed in St. Savior’s Chapel at the Cathedral or climbed down into the stone catacombs to sing, deep under the Cathedral. It sounded like ancient Gregorian chant, our voices weaving intricate melodies of echoing song. We revised our name to reflect our newfound Christianity and became The New York Tent City Symphony of Souls in Christ.

Canon West was to become a powerful force behind the birth and growth of our Christian community during our formative stage. He was more than just our spiritual advisor but truly he became a father to our community. I always felt intrigued and humbled in his commanding presence. What a strange blend of the wonderful and the absurd! Though often solemn and reserved, Canon West had a delightful sense of the theatrical. Sometimes he could be found walking his Irish setters out on the Cathedral close dressed in flowing monastic robes or even an authentic Scottish kilt!
Canon West in a kilt

Another important person that provided spiritual guidance to our community over the years was writer Madeleine L’Engle Franklin (author of A Wrinkle in Time). She was a very close friend of Canon West who served as the Cathedral’s librarian/writer in residence during the winter months. She took it upon herself to help nurture our community and focus it, both spiritually and morally. In effect, this is how Father West and Madeleine L’Engle became the spiritual mother and father of our fledgling community.

Madeleine L'Engle Franklin

In those final Loft months, there were many more wonderful evening gatherings that brought new visitors, influences and experiences. Some members from the Church of Christ, a Korean Christian Pentecostal church in Queens, came to visit the Loft and then invited us to a potluck at their church. I loved potlucks and was delighted when we soon were making regular trips out to Queens to share meals and worship with the brethren there. What a contrast to the elaborate, ornate High Church services in the mammoth stone interior of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine! Walking into the church we were faced with a smiling sea of friendly Korean Christians sprinkled here and there with Caucasians. These gentle, self-effacing people eagerly welcomed us into their fellowship without any reservations (which in its own way was amazing due to our bedraggled hippie appearances). It was like being swept into the warm embrace of your mother welcoming you home. It was as if the Cathedral was our father and this church was our mother - each so different yet both were essential to our newborn Christian lives. And the hymns! These gentle brethren sang a delightful mixture of Korean and fundamentalist Christian hymns within a Pentecostal flair. We made many new friends who dropped by for dinner and prayers in the Loft, usually bringing delicious plates of home-cooked food. Throughout the late winter and early spring we alternated between regular visits uptown to the Cathedral and visits to the Church of Christ in Queens. God used these encounters to strengthen our commitment to Him and to each other.