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.

Rise up my Love, Come Away

Shishonee on harp

I wander through the valleys
Searching for Him whom I love
As He knocked, my hand upon the lock.
Too long did I wait.
The last word before He left was,
“Rise up my love, come away.”
- From Shishonee's song I Wander

With spring approaching, we received word that 108 Fourth Avenue would be torn down in May. The building had been condemned long before we moved in, but the impending deadline came as a bit of a shock.

What did God want us to do? Newly born in our Christian faith, we grappled with different ideas for our mission. Music, theater and drama were a strong part of our heritage. Could we use these natural gifts to spread the Word? Eventually, after much prayer and many discussions, Roger came up with the idea of buying a bus to take our musical message on the road. Instantly this clicked with all of us. A bus! Traveling minstrels! Leaving for the wide unknown! Traveling through America on the open road with only God to guide us! Having read about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, this nomadic lifestyle certainly appealed to my hippy roots. I had the feeling one does when you plan a long vacation or face the clean white expanse of an unpainted canvas. Who knew what would happen, what lay ahead? Just the idea of turning a bus into a camper and setting out together filled me with eager anticipation. Now we had new sense of purpose! Shipen conferred with Canon West, who agreed with our mission and gave us his blessing. Over the next months, we set about planning for our adventure with the first step being finding a way to earn money for our journey.

It was time to get to work. From January through April of 1971, we scrounged up various jobs. Shipen found a job at Greenberg’s. Stephanie, Naomi, Sarah and I worked at Sloan’s Grocery Store or the A & P, and Ariel and David Lynch worked at Weisner’s bookstore. David K. continued attending high school. Shipen and Roger set about locating a used school bus.

Meanwhile, Stephanie wrestled with the idea of baptism and she and Shipen had some long discussions about it. Being Jewish, she felt strongly that she wanted to formalize her commitment to Christianity through baptism. Stephanie writes about how the Lord answered her prayers on spring day, March 27, 1971:

"I remember our baptism well because it was so important to me and my walk with the Lord. Our baptism was an answer to my prayers. I explained to Shipen that being Jewish, I felt like baptism was a necessary "statement" to mark my belief in Jesus as my Lord and Savior. You all, being Gentile, had already been baptized and I asked Shipen to baptize me in our bathtub. Shipen was uncomfortable with the idea. He really didn't want to baptize me and told me to pray about it. So, I did...

Shortly after that conversation and prayer, a man just came walking up our Loft stairs (not unusual for us). He announced that he was sent by God to baptize us; it was his ministry. With his announcement, Shipen and I just looked at each other. We knew it was the answer to my prayer!

I can't even remember this young man's name, but he had dinner with us and taught us why we had to be baptized. Then he told us he had a relationship with a church up town and was allowed to use their baptismal fount. He would make the arrangements; all we had to do was be there.

We took the bus uptown where Roger and Claudia met us and we walked with them the rest of the way to the Church of Christ. At the church, we each went into the dressing rooms where pure white garments, including caps and shoes were laid out for us. The baptismal pool was marble. I couldn't believe all the details had been taken care of. For this little Jewish American princess it was like a dream come true, the only thing that could have been better was to be in Israel in the River Jordan! I remember too, the young man baptized us in the name of Jesus AND in the name of the "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" so that NO Man’s doctrine could tell us we hadn't been properly baptized. In addition, he was determined to fully submerge us for the same reason. He had a time of it with David K. who was so long and lanky. He would put in one end and the other would come popping to the surface of the water. It must have taken three dunks to get David completely submerged.

Sitting in the church after the baptism was so very special. I remember not wanting to leave, move or think, because for the first time in my life, I knew I was truly CLEAN."

So each of us was baptized. Afterwards, the young man led us in a short communion service. He read from scripture about the Second Coming and after communion, we sang together and then stayed in the church for a while to pray, reflecting on our new birth in Christ. Feeling refreshed and rededicated to the Lord, I recall stepping out into the bright sunshine and walking through Central Park. It was a beautiful sunny spring day and it seemed like the whole earth was reborn anew. There were people flying kites and eating picnics sitting on blankets in the grass. I felt completely alive and happy as we strolled through the park. I was reborn!

After that day, we never saw the man again. Years later, Claudia commented that it was so strange that right after asking the Lord to be properly baptized, this unkempt, scruffy looking character marched in off the streets convinced his mission was to baptize us. Then, just as suddenly, he walked out of our lives again. Surely the Lord sent us an angel that day!

In February and March, a frequent visitor to the Loft was Steve Raphalsky from the Church of Christ. To me he was an intensely serious young man with dark eyes ringed with circles as if he rarely slept. Whenever he showed up, I felt edgy and uncomfortable around him. I had my own hang-ups and as a result I didn’t like being alone with him. I felt like he was staring at me all the time. (Poor Steve, it was all my imagination but I couldn’t help it at the time - he gave me the creeps).

I vividly recall one evening when everyone was away, for some reason or other, and I was prepared to enjoy some rare privacy. Suddenly I heard footsteps climbing the stairs into the loft. Damn. Maybe if I hide somewhere they'll go away! Suddenly Steve popped his head around the curtain and I jumped back in surprise. He launched into reading aloud from Revelations or something and I grew more and more uncomfortable as he droned on and on about Satan and demonic forces. Not knowing what else to do, I finally blurted out, “Sorry Steve, I have to get going, I’m meeting a friend for tea.” Throwing on my coat, I rushed out of the Loft tossing out excuses, “Oh boy am I late! See yah later Steve.”

Of course, once I reached the street below I realized my mistake. It was cold, late and dark outside. Great. Just great. Now what am I going to do? What if he follows me? I stuck my head back in the door and sure enough I heard his footsteps coming down the stairs. Quickly I darted across the street and around the corner into a flophouse hotel. “Ah...I need a room for the night,” I improvised, trying to look calm and confident. “Do I pay now or later? …Ah, I’m not sure how many nights I’ll be staying,” I lied. What am I doing! I don’t have a dime with me! The clerk glanced up from a book he was reading and in a bored tone replied, “You can pay when you leave.” After I signed in (with a fake name) he handed me a key. Oh, thank God!

I slipped the key into my pocket and raced up the stairs, hoping against hope that Steve hadn’t followed me! I made it to my room and quickly locked the door behind me. Just then, I thought I heard Steve’s heavy footsteps clumping down the hallway. They seemed to pause right outside my door and someone was turning the doorknob! I froze, every muscle in my body tightened in fear. I tried to breathe as quietly as I could but my heart was pounding so loud it was hard for me to hear! After what seemed like hours, the person turned and walked away and I thought I heard them enter a nearby room. Oh my God! Did Steve follow me? Did he have a room next door? Was someone after me?

That settled it. Paranoid or not I was not going to leave that room until the morning! It was a grungy, filthy room and I kept picturing thousands of bugs crawling under the dirty sheets. Ugh. I lay stiffly on top of the bed, motionless and fully dressed. I hardly slept at all, feeling guilty, frightened and really stupid. The next morning I left my key in the room and snuck downstairs and slipped out a side door. I was so afraid of being caught that I ran straight back to the Loft. Thank God, I was home! I vowed I would stop lying and somehow I'd pay back the hotel. (Ten years later, I sent a long note of apology and paid back double the cost of my room.)

On another one of Steve’s infamous visits, Stephanie’s mother, Estelle, and brother Marc, were dinner guests. As usual, Steve was raving on and on about the dark and demonic and even Shipen could barely get a word in edgewise. Wearied of the morose conversation, one by one we slipped away into the refuge of our kitchen. When Stephanie finally joined us, we looked around and suddenly realized her poor mother and brother were still with Steve! No one recalls who finally rescued them. Maybe no one did because years later Stephanie’s mother recalled the incident in vivid detail when reminiscing at her 80th birthday party! Steve continued to haunt me until the day we left the City on the bus.

Another memorable visitor was a man who called himself Brother Nielson. It was March 14, 1971 when he walked into our evening gathering claiming he was called by God to be our new spiritual leader and spokesman for the group. Graciously, Shipen let him spell out his plan, promising to seek God’s will before giving him our answer. After he left, we prayed together, asking God for guidance. God’s answer was clear and the next night, when Brother Neilson returned to make another power play, Shipen firmly asked him to leave. Luckily, he did.

Meanwhile, Canon West took it upon himself to begin our initiation into contemplative life. He was the Abbott of an Episcopal convent called the Community of the Holy Spirit located in uptown Manhattan. He suggested that a visit there might help us formulate a structure for our fledgling religious community. So soon afterwards, Naomi, Stephanie and I visited the convent, which was within walking distance of the Cathedral.

As I entered the convent, it was like stepping back into a time and place where life was centered and totally focused on God. Outside, New York City continued on with its frenzied, noisy pace yet inside those graceful walls there was an overwhelming atmosphere of peace and solitude. Every aspect of daily life was intensely focused and dedicated to God. The nuns were dressed in full length black habits and moved around like wraiths, wrapped in total silence. After a brief tour, I was introduced to Sister Miriam, a fellow harpist. Of course I eagerly asked her everything I could about her pedal harp and the music she played on it, feeling an instant kinship with her. Her godmother was Madeline L’Engle and graciously she gave me a prayer book that Madeline had given to her. Turning it over and over in my hands, I immediately cherished it (and keep it by my bedside to this day).

Once introductions were over, the three of us attended vespers in the chapel. What heavenly singing! Leaning back in the hard wooden pew with my eyes closed, I soaked in the feeling of godliness and peace...the rise and fall of those soft, soprano voices bound together in the cadence of Gregorian chant, the smooth texture of the oak benches polished from years of dedicated devotion, the rustling of robes as the women rose up and kneeled down... A deep sense of solitude washed away all the worldly thoughts crowding my mind until I felt at peace and at one with God. I found their contemplative monastic life deeply compelling. One of the women was going through the transition from being a novice to taking her vows and “marrying” Christ. A simple yet profound “wedding” ceremony unfolded and I was touched by the purity of her love and dedication to our Lord.

Afterwards, I found I couldn’t keep the convent out of my thoughts. Their rituals, their lifestyle - the daily rhythm of their lives fascinated me. When we returned to the Loft, we chattered away full of excitement, sharing what we’d seen and advocating for ideas like taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Meanwhile, Canon West pressed us to establish more structure and discipline in our lives. He counseled that a more Christ-centered, monastic lifestyle would help us grow spiritually as well as live more peacefully with one another. He began with baby steps. First, he suggested saying the Jesus prayer, following the tradition of early monastic orders. He showed us how to use soft rope-like prayer beads, repeating the prayer each time our fingers moved to a new knot. Ariel immediately made us each a rosary of knotted black macrame yarn and over and over I practiced the prayer saying:

[Breathing in…] “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”
[Breathing out…] “Have mercy upon me a sinner.”

This became a never-ending mantra. I repeated it while walking to my grocery store job, while restocking shelves, and even as I punched in food prices on my cash register. “Lord Jesus Christ…25 cents…Son of God…3 dollars and 99 cents…have mercy upon me…55 cents…a sinner...Thank you, have a nice day!” Soon I fell into the rhythm of it until I could repeat the words unconsciously. It gave me a deep sense of well being. It was a way to open up my heart and connect with God throughout the day.

Next, Canon West suggested we have daily prayer services together and study scripture and other early Christian writings (the Philokalia, St. Francis, and others). That was easy, since we had already been reading the Bible and having long evening contemplation, music and meditation sessions.

Even as we stepped off into a deeper Christian life, I was finding the day to day aspects of urban life increasingly repugnant. My initial love affair with New York City had waned. I longed for Mother nature’s green spaces, flowering meadows, quiet streams and gentle beauty. I was sick of the cluttered, dirty grey streets, the cold, sharp angled glass and steel buildings, the tense, unfriendly people pushing past me as I walked home from work. The homeless people seemed so desolate and filthy and street people languished everywhere. Riding the subway, people sat stony faced and unfriendly. Beggars would break into a song and dance asking for handouts spinning some desperate hard luck story. I hated walked through Spanish Harlem where men would whistle and yell out, “Hey Mammaseeta, come here. I have sometheeng for you seester.” I would set my face into a scowl, square off my shoulders, and spit in an effort to look tough as I rushed home.

One evening, I closed out my drawer at Sloan’s Grocery Store and then cashed my check across the street at the bank. I shoved two week’s pay in my pocket and started home. Suddenly two men dressed in dark clothes emerged from the shadows of a building. A pock faced skinny man flashed a switchblade in front of my face and the other grabbed my arm. Frightened, I asked, “What do you want?” Pushing the knife even closer to my cheek, the man growled, “Give me all your money!” With trembling hands I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the wad of bills. Snatching it out of my hands, they turned and fled, laughing as they ran off. As the shock of what had happened hit, adrenaline surged through me. Immediately I dashed across the street and ran all the way home to the safety of the Loft, crying and badly shaken. This was my first experience with being robbed. Horrifying!

Always the slow learner, it wasn’t until my second scare occurred that I finally learned my lesson. Two weeks later, I cashed my paycheck and once again shoved it into my coat pockets and set off to shop for groceries at the A & P. When I reached the store, I pulled out my shopping list and pushed my cart through the aisles, filling it with food. As I walked along lost in my thoughts suddenly someone rushed past me, bumping my arm and almost knocking me over. “Oh, sorry, didn’t see you!” the woman cried as she swept past. Wow, she must really be in a hurry! I thought. She should slow down and enjoy life more I mused.

Twenty minutes later, I pushed a packed shopping cart up to the checkout counter. After everything had been rung up, I reached into my pocket to pay for the groceries. Nothing! Desperately, I scrounged around in my other pocket. Where did I put that money? Suddenly I made a horrible realization - the money was gone! With a concerned voice, the cashier asked, “Are you sure you brought your money? Maybe you left it at home?” “No, I’m positive I had it,” I said in a stricken voice. Panicked, I left the cart and searched up and down the aisles of the store, thinking I might have dropped it. No such luck. When I returned, the cashier shook her head sympathetically saying, “Oh, it happens all the time. Somebody will bump into you and that’s when they pick your pocket.” Crestfallen, I offered to put the groceries back but she waved me off saying, “Don’t worry about it, someone will restock them. Just be more careful next time!” Returning home shaken and empty handed I felt like a complete idiot.

This taught me an important lesson. From then on, I kept my cash tucked inside my bra, hidden and inaccessible. Funny though, there was one more lesson we had to learn involving money that would prove even more surprising - but more on that later…