I threw some clothes into an old green canvas knapsack, took the subway out of the City and stood by the side of the freeway with my thumb out. After a few minutes, a truck driver leaned out his window and yelled, “Need a ride?” Nervous but determined, I answer, “Yeah!” “Where yah headed?” he asked as I climbed up into the cab. “Back to Detroit. I’m going to visit my folks.” “Okay, I’ll take yah as far as 475 in Toledo he said, smiling as he shoved the truck into gear and a grinding noise blocked out my soft reply of “Thanks.” Please let me be okay. Don’t let him be a weirdo, I thought. Luckily, he turned out to be friendly and seemed content to have me along to listen to his long winded stories and jokes. Even so, I was relieved when my second ride in Toledo turned out to be a quiet family of four headed for Walled Lake who offered to drop me off at my parent’s doorstep in West Bloomfield. Phew!
The next day, I looked up Sarah Benstein. We caught up on everything that had been going on in our lives and somehow our conversation turned to the mysterious Urantia Book and how amazing it was. The entire book was purported to have been written automatically by one man who would close his eyes and allow himself to become a channel for other worldly spirits who then took control of his hand as the words flowed from his pen. Impulsively, we decided to hitchhike to Chicago to visit the Urantia Foundation. We arrived at this hole-in- the-wall rundown building at 533 Diversey Parkway that seemed ancient and kind of creepy looking. Knocking on the door, an elderly lady with silvery hair opened the door and smiling cryptically, invited us inside. The main room was dark and crowded with books and stacks of paper. Another small old woman sat typing at an old typewriter and turning around, she smiled up at us. After a quick tour, I peppered the first woman with questions. “How was The Urantia Book written? Did the author close his eyes as he wrote? How exactly did he know it was a divine revelation”, etc., etc. I don’t know what I had expected but I wasn’t impressed with their mundane "yes...no" answers. After a quick tour, we left, disillusioned and very disappointed. What a farce!
Somehow, Sarah and I made it safely back to Michigan. The next day, after sleeping for what seemed like 24 hours, I went outside my parent’s house and sat alone on a porch swing. Feeling emotionally drained and exhausted from our trip the day before, I closed my eyes and started to pray asking, Are you there God? If you are there, will you send me some kind of word? Struggling with doubts and wondering if Jesus was just a prophet, I tried to settle myself. I don't get it, God. If Jesus was your son, why would you let him die? Is there really a heaven or are we just going to die and that's it? Hey! Send me an angel! Let me hear your voice! Are you real or just someone's imagination?
After awhile, the anger, frustration and questions dissolved and I was infused with a warm reassuring Godly affirmation. I never heard any voices, or got to see any special visions. Yet I knew God was reaching out to me again. I understood he was my loving father whose son Jesus had come to love me and be with me. Jesus reached out to me and drew me close and somehow my questions and confusion fell away. I felt those loving arms reaching around me and sheltering me and for once, I felt truly and deeply loved. I had my answer on that quiet fall afternoon. Though I can't stand the artifical hokeyness of the phrase, the best way to explain it was that I opened myself up and welcomed Jesus into my heart. Unfortunately, this didn't completely free me from my ongoing doubts and questions, but more on that later.
When I returned home, I called Sarah and Naomi, and eagerly shared what had happened to me on the swing. I told them about what we were doing in the Loft and asked if they wanted to come with me back to New York City? Sarah agreed to return to the Loft with me. About a month later, Naomi Goldman came too.
When I got back to the Loft, I was eager to talk about my experience on the porch swing. I was astounded to discover that I wasn’t the only one…
Shipen filled us in on his own amazing experience. He had gone to visit a friend in New Paltz. Early one evening, he decided to go for a walk. Spotting a beautiful old black willow tree, he climbed up into its branches. After sitting there quietly for a while, somehow he slipped and fell, landing hard on the ground. Stunned, he lay flat on his back catching his breath. Suddenly, as he looked upward into the sky, he was overwhelmed by a vision of Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of God!
This experience impacted Shipen so profoundly that he came back to the Loft a changed person. He had experienced his own Damascus road conversion and now was wholly dedicated to Jesus – reborn and professing faith in Christ alone.
An excerpt from a letter he wrote years later clarifies his experience:
"That was the point of my conversion. I recognized Jesus as savior through a movement of the Holy Spirit. From there I went back to the attic where people began to sift back with the same news. We realized then that we were to become a Christian community and that community was to be a witness of faith…"
David Lynch later wrote about what had happened to him:
"Gradually through the autumn and into winter a core group of people had assembled as residents at the loft. Shipen of course, Ariel, David K, Shishonee and Sarah, myself, Stephanie, Steve, and others each feeling called into a partnership of hope, a communal searching journey, a symphony of discovery, of meaning to life, of our purpose in the world. I had taken a job at an art store off Sixth Avenue and Maurice my co-worker and I would get together after work for drinks. But I found myself instead wanting the company of the symphony. A symphony of souls someone had called us. One afternoon in the quiet and empty loft, I was alone and meditating, contemplating love and peace and the mysterious reasons why things happen. Actually Shipen and some others had been away for some time. Shipen spent more and more time as the loft "filled up" uptown with his friends Roger and Claudia. He and Roger had worked in Advertising together in a previous cycle. Roger and Claudia had often come to the loft, where they joined the musical peacecaravan; Roger playing with lilting beats on his tabla drums, Claudia gently plucking the tamboura. But now, there I was alone at the loft.
Over the weeks and months our mystical journeys together had ventured into the western mystic traditions and a wonderful tome of Universal history, the Urantia Book, had emerged as a roadmap of the cosmos. It had somewhat unnerved me because my deeply suppressed and forgotten Irish Roman Catholic roots had been tweaked with these histories of Angels and Messengers and even the stories behind the story of Jesus. With remarkable clarity the holes in the gospel stories were filled and coloured in. Of course Jesus was off in India learning the mysteries when the Church was silent on parts of his life. Of course when we died we simply went on to other realms. Of course the Universe was all explained and orderly but why for me? Why now? Why Jesus? The more I thought I knew the more I didn't know. What were these paths, these journeys made, those roads untaken? With my faithful guitar in hand, sitting there alone, the sunbeams bouncing off the walls from the avenue below, I sang of my doubts, the whys and cant's and yet the Love; the impossible cul-de-sacs and the precipices not lost in nor fallen down upon; a path as if now chosen. To stay the course? to go? to flee? And where to run? And as if this Jesus was my guide to Love, to Peace, to Joy, I sang and cried and listened and somehow knew why I was there. And new strong feelings of certainty and trust welled up within me. And this Jesus, once the jailer of hated and forgotten church myths, now freed by newly discovered mystical secrets and revelations, of a Certain Thereness became a gentle Light inside me, urging me to wait, to be still, to listen. And thus I prayed. As if awoken I stayed. And thus too, as the symphony gathered together again, and the call to join a pilgrimage without a destination was made, I pledged my acceptance of the call and joined them."
God had moved powerfully within us, shaking the foundations of our lives. God abruptly turned the direction of our small group 180 degrees from the East to the West and Christianity. Our excursions into Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and other esoteric religions were suddenly over. Our focus shifted from wandering and searching to a newfound dedication to Jesus Christ.
At this point, there were ten of us living together in the Loft: Shipen, Ariel Dross, Shishonee Ruetenik, Stephen Gambill, David Karasek, David Lynch, Stephanie Arje, Sarah, Naomi and Annie Rawlins (my former housemother from Leelanau). Shipen was still our un-appointed leader, guiding us to live more sober, purposeful lives. He called a meeting. He pointed out that it was time to clean the Loft and “put off your old self”, both symbolically and in reality. We packed away the Eastern books and talismans and rearranged our sleeping quarters. We also organized certain duties: shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking. Most of us got outside jobs. The stragglers and visitors were asked to leave if they could not accept this new direction or their share of responsibilities.
We read the Bible voraciously, as if we had been starved of true knowledge and suddenly a feast of Truth lay before us. The Bible became the main source for our evening readings along with the Philokalia and writings from the early Eastern Church fathers. Looking back, this rebirth was intense. There was an incredible sense of devotion and passion that at times blotted out the practicality of the world around us. Sometimes we would get so caught up in prayers during grace that by the time we opened our eyes to eat, an hour had passed and the food was cold. One evening, Shipen read the complete Book of John and for a long time afterwards we sat in stunned silence, profoundly affected by this gospel of Jesus’ life. God had touched us through the text. No other words could reframe the power of that experience.
Throughout those days, our music and creativity flourished and I was filled with a sense of wonder. During the nightly music and prayer sessions, I honestly believe God sent His angels to sing through our voices and guide our experience. It was magical, mysterious and holy all at the same time.