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.

Summer at Community Farm of the Brethren

Shishonee and Naomi sitting on the hill
 overlooking the apple orchard on the farm

The Community Farm of the Brethren had been in contact with two leading Hutterites from Germany and invited them to come to visit and minister. So it was that one summer afternoon, two charismatic visitors arrived at the farm. “Reinhold” and “Earnest” arrived like gangbusters and my immediate response was one of skepticism and judgmentalism. That first night they led the brethren in prayers, read from scripture and then announced a revelation that the faith marches should end immediately (so they did!).

From that moment on, those two powerful men took over leading the evening meetings and prayers. Energetic and dynamic speakers, much of the Hutterite community seemed to hang on their every word, accepting their ideas and admonitions as absolute truth. Personally, I thought the women were acting liked schoolgirls, nodding and giggling at whatever the German's said. I wrote in my journal one evening that it was just ridiculous. If the brother’s uttered the words “go left”, the entire community would proceed to walk to the left. If they said “go right”, everyone would suddenly march to the right. They could easily lead them over a cliff! Listening to the apocalyptic tone of their sermons, we busfolk disagreed with the move-back-to-Israel vision they were preaching. Here we were in the process of trying to establish our own ministry alongside the brethren on a nearby farm and suddenly these German preachers were talking about packing up and moving to Israel!

Admittedly, I had my own pet peeves. Typical of the Pentecostal worship style, the German brothers prayed with their arms reaching upwards. I had seen this many times before but I couldn’t imagine it with our salt-of-the-earth Hutterites. Yet sure enough, four days after their arrival even Alexander, his wife and Ma Kubasek were praying with their palms upward, arms outstretched. Oh boy.

As the early summer days passed, tensions mounted again in our small family. It started when Claudia fainted during a service. Shipen decided we needed to pray to cast out a “spirit of mesmerism.” This led to extensive scriptural admonitions and a long meeting with the Hutterite elders. I thought he was being melodramatic. Maybe it was just too hot and stuffy in the chapel! Maybe she just had the flu.

Shipen called for a family meeting and Stephanie shared her strong desire to get married and have a family. She explained she wanted to go back to New York on retreat to try to sort things out. Then David Lynch shared that he was considering leaving the group too. As everyone discussed their feelings and desires, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I had a horrible sinking feeling that our family was going to fall apart. I wondered if we could continue holding things together much longer.

In the morning, Shipen called Rodney Kirk who urged Shipen to return to New York for a short visit. With things pulling each of us in different directions, Shipen decided it was time to seek Canon West’s counsel. So Shipen and Stephanie left for New York for two weeks, while the rest of us held down the fort. I prayed for the Lord to bring our family back together and keep us whole.

Almost as soon as Shipen and Stephanie left, the two German brothers came over to the bus to chat with us. They shared their vision of a community in Israel and urged us to consider the idea of going there. We prayed and talked for a long time. Finally my resistance fell away when Reinhold gently said, “Dear Ones, I love you.” That was it, I melted and from then on I accepted them, as did the rest of our group. Was it because our elder Shipen was gone that we suddenly accepted these men? For me, I think it was their humble attitude that finally allowed me to see them simply as two human beings, affectionate and kind. I did a complete “about face”, let go of my judgmental armor and relaxed. However, although I warmed to them and accepted them I could not connect with their message calling for creating a community in Israel.

Over the next days, there were conversions and baptisms as various people were “born again.” Still Old Fred, one of the original elders, remained quietly steadfast in his authority. He would periodically stand and give admonitions or a blessing. I admired his old fashioned strength of character. His simplicity endeared him to me in a way that no slick, charismatic preacher ever could. He would speak in his quiet, simple English, “go, your sins are forgiven now… and don’t do it no more!” Precious!

The Germans had attracted dozens of new visitors to the farm so after services, there were many new faces joining us for nightly gatherings on our bus. I found those two weeks very peaceful and fun. There was no bickering or arguing. I used the time for self-reflection and relaxation. I enjoyed some new experiences like attending a local farm auction, picking and canning cherries alongside the Hutterite women, and attending an old-fashioned baptism down by the river. One highlight was the beautiful wedding celebration of our friends Nabile and Katherine, which we all attended, dressed in our Sunday best.

On July 24th, Arnold, the son of John Entz from the outcast group, came to attend a service in the chapel. Was this the beginning of healing between the two Hutterite factions? The next day, three more girls from the splinter group came to services. Then the German brothers called for a symbolic healing ceremony. That Sunday, the men and women split into separate groups for a religious ceremony. The men washed one another’s feet and the women also washed each other’s feet in a symbolic act of humility. Afterwards, there was a huge feast and the German brothers served steaming dishes of food to everyone. Five days later Reinhold and Ernest flew back to Germany and things returned to normal.

Just after they left, Shipen and Stephanie returned from New York City and we gathered on the bus to hear about their trip. Shipen filled us in on his meeting with Canon West and his stay with Rodney. He and Rodney had once again discussed the vision of a farm ministry and the many ramifications of such an idea. It could be a place for young people to go for rehabilitation from drug habits or to detox. It would be a way to clear their minds and bodies as they worked on the farm. Excited, we kicked around various ideas wondering if this was God’s purpose for us. We talked on and on, eventually agreeing to pray about it first.

Then Stephanie eagerly told us about her retreat at the Community of the Holy Spirit, the Episcopal convent that Canon West mentored and advised. She was bubbling with ideas and suggested we should establish daily worship services, communion in the mornings and create a general “Rule” (the framework a monastic order uses to layout it’s routines, discipline and overall guidelines). To me, her ideas rang true. We prayed asking God if this was the type of life he was calling us to. That evening we sang Psalms 4 and 147 responsively, in the same manner as the nuns did. Though we had not been playing our instruments together for some time, Psalm 147 had some prophetic words for us:

Praise the Lord.
How good it is to sing praises to our God,
how pleasant and fitting to praise him!

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
He gathers the exiles of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds…

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving
make music to our God on the harp
He covers the sky with clouds
He supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills…

God seemed to be saying that he would heal our divisions and care for all our needs. He was encouraging us to praise him and worship him through our music. Immediately I felt a sense of confirmation. Yes, Lord this is right. This is what we should be doing to praise and honor you.

The next day after work, we gathered in the bus and Shipen brought up the question of our ministry and the idea of the farm again. But before we could really get into a discussion about it, Roger and Claudia surprised us by announcing they wanted to leave to go on retreat. Roger explained they needed time to think about the group, their marriage and if the Lord wanted them to start a family. They didn’t think a baby would work in the bus environment. Ariel chimed in saying he too felt called to go on a retreat to make some decisions of his own, as did I. We all agreed it was time to examine our personal commitment and calling. So once again we split apart as Roger, Claudia and Ariel left for New York City and Sara left on vacation back home.

I went on retreat to The Sisters of the Church, a convent at 1151 Lakeshore Road in Oakville, Ontario. Almost immediately, I found myself connecting to monastic life. I found the structure of daily routines comforting and the long periods of silence helped center me spiritually. The sisters were kind, loving and supportive.

After hearing so much about the Community Farm of the Brethren during my retreat, the sisters were intrigued. When it was time for me to leave, they offered to drive me back so they could visit the Hutterites, see our bus and meet the rest of my Christian family. So we piled into their car and they drove me back to the farm. Feeling like a kid at the end of camp, I showed them around and then brought them to see the chapel. The nuns stayed for lunch and sat with us at our table in the dining hall. As we ate, they peppered us with questions about our community life, our history and travels. They joined us for our evening service on the bus and then gave us a lovely gift of two elegant brass candlesticks. Touched, I hugged them promising to visit them again in the future. That night I lay in my sleeping bag convinced as Stephanie was that it would be helpful if we adopted a similar daily structure into our own lives. I felt refreshed and centered and totally rededicated to our community life together.

It was August and we were very busy harvesting fruit and vegetables, canning and pickling. The dining hall kitchen was a delightful place full of laughter, singing or good natured teasing. Usually the kitchen was off limits to all of us bus folk. Thus it was a rare treat when I was invited to learn how to make dill pickles. I was shown which herb was dill in the garden, how to wash and rub off the prickly points on the cucumbers, what ingredients to add, and how to prepare the dozens of jars of pickles. Hard work, but I was delighted to be included!


August 8th brought incredibly exciting news. Sarah had been rescued! Her father called to tell us he had learned Sarah was in Cincinnati, Ohio and had immediately driven down there. He quickly searched the streets until he located her on a street corner “witnessing” along with other Children of God members. He inched the car up close to their group and suddenly cried out “I come in the name of the Lord”, startling everyone. Then he leapt out, grabbed Sarah and pulled her into his car. Slamming the door he sped off as the others stood gaping. He drove her straight home. His phone call was an answer to my prayers! He told us he would be bringing her back soon. I was overjoyed knowing that soon my sister would be back with us. It seemed like she had been gone forever. What a relief it would be to have her home again!

As Shipen tenaciously focused his efforts on his vision for a farm, we grew more and more excited about it. The idea was that our group would establish some kind of semi-monastic community or religious order based on a farm and run a rehabilitation center. It would be a place for wayward souls to come and get away from outside worldly influences while working on the farm. Clearly our own work with the Hutterites had helped us a great deal and increasingly we saw the value in simple manual labor. Shipen spoke of various possibilities but the vision of a permanent home in the country was key to every permutation. As the summer wore on and cold weather approached, our conviction to purchase the nearby farm grew stronger. (Especially since our tents were pitched in the apple orchard and it would be getting mighty cold come fall).

Shipen met repeatedly with the Hutterite elders and they revisited the barn and grounds. Fervently he pitched his dream, explaining that it could become a refuge for hungry and weary young souls, a school, or maybe an orphanage. They agreed to consider it and discuss it amongst their elders.

We also prayed for a clear vision, asking for God’s confirmation. Was it a coincidence that the brethren were being presented with two distinct visions for a future farm ministry? On the one hand was the vision presented by the German brothers that called for a communal farm/kibbutz in Israel. On the other was our vision calling them to work alongside us in establishing a farm retreat center.

I think the turning point came one day when Shipen shared with the elders that he felt God had called him to minister to a Native American boy named "Don". The young man was addicted to Darvon and needed to get away from his current home situation. He asked if the elders would consider allowing Don to come work and live with the Hutterites for a while? He launched into his vision of a farm where Don and others like him could come to retreat, worship, and work with their hands while breaking addictions. Unfortunately, this was probably not the best idea since the brethren still had a sour taste in their mouths regarding the hippie camp incident. It was still fresh on their minds that they had allowed hippies to camp on their property only to find out they had grown marijuana, were dealing and using drugs there. Not a good influence for their children!

After many discussions and prayers on both sides, we received our answer August 10th.. The elders regretfully informed us they did not want Don to come and they did not want us to start a ministry on the nearby farm. They countered with the suggestion that they would support us in establishing a farm somewhere a long distance away. They also said they could not be joined with us unless we accepted the doctrine that the German brothers had been preaching which required that we be willing to go to Israel (an idea that we did not agree with).

I was so upset at their answer at the time that I missed the amazing fact that they were willing to finance our venture albeit on a farm far away. I was deeply disappointed and suspected their decision had more to do with protecting their children from an influx of strangers with drug or addiction problems. Wasn’t God calling us to this ministry? Why couldn’t they see that? I recall reading the Bible at the time about God calling Abraham to sacrifice his own child on the altar and that though God tested Abraham’s faith, he never allowed anything to happen to that child. Didn't they realize God wouldn’t allow their children to be harmed? Or was I just being naive? I felt totally betrayed and let down. I kept thinking that God had called all of us to a farm ministry and to me the brethren were getting bogged down in fear that blinded them to God’ purpose.

Nevertheless, it was a loving gesture for them to propose to help us finance a farm somewhere else. We thanked them for this kind offer and said we would pray about it and confer amongst ourselves after Sarah, Ariel, Roger and Claudia returned.

That afternoon Sarah returned to the farm with her father, her aunt and her brother. Praise God!  Eagerly we spent the afternoon learning about everything that had happened to her. I thanked God she was back with us again! I noticed that to me she seemed kind of quiet and preoccupied. Grateful to have her home with us, I held her up in my prayers.

The very next day, Ariel returned from his week at the Society of St. Francis. Much like Stephanie and I, he too had been strongly affected by his retreat at the monastery. Eagerly he shared many fresh ideas for new routines and procedures. I liked his new self-confidence. His previous feelings of inadequacy and indecision had been replaced by grace and strength.

Finally, Roger and Claudia returned from New York and we were back together as a complete family again. We celebrated with some of Julius’ homemade blackcurrant wine and spent the evening talking about our future. We went around the circle and each of us shared what we saw as our personal “position in the Lord.” Knowing some decisions would need to be made soon. Eventually, we agreed that each of us needed to pray about our own commitment to The Symphony of Souls. It was time to examine our own hearts and then share what we understood the “vision” of our community to be. Also, how did think we fit into it? Would it be on a bus, on a farm, or where? Would it be in this community or another one? What shape would it take? This was still unknown. The one thing we all agreed on was that we each saw ourselves as living in a community, whether there or elsewhere.

Roger and Claudia making ice cream

Two days later we were shocked when Roger and Claudia announced their decision to leave our community because of their desire to have children and raise a family. Upon hearing Roger and Claudia’s intentions, the brethren resoundingly approved. The rest of us generally did not feel a similar conviction and there began a round of prayers and meetings that went on throughout the day. I was absolutely sure that this was not what God wanted for our family. He still had work for us to do and we’d barely begun our musical ministry. I couldn’t understand why they would want to leave and abandon our mission? Couldn’t they remember how we felt as we set out on the bus?! I felt overwhelmed with sadness and distress.

When it came time for evening services, Roger and Claudia walked over to the chapel. All the rest of us stayed behind to pray and talk. Shipen said he was upset with the lack of loyalty and commitment and called for us to re-dedicate ourselves fully to the Lord’s service. After a while, we again went around the circle voicing our personal commitment to the group, all except for Naomi who admitted she was still undecided.

Naomi had been wrestling with her own misgivings and difficulties about remaining with our group. She seemed increasingly unhappy and withdrawn, going off by herself to her tent or taking long walks alone through the orchards. I admired how she continued to go out of her way to fellowship with the splinter group of Hutterites, and her kindness, love and courage. She had a deep sensitivity to the Hutterite children and she had a gift of spiritual discernment. I just wondered if she was happy.

Later our good friend Julius joined us for prayers and received a prophecy, “Fear not little flock but take pleasure in me.” He shared a vision he'd had of a ram beating its head against a shield and losing its horn. As soon as the horn fell off, the ram stopped fighting. It grew still and saw green pastures awaiting it. Did this mean we were right and Roger and Claudia should stop trying to fight God’s purpose for them and that somehow everything would work out? Or did this mean we should stop fighting their desire to leave, relax and everything would work out? I just didn’t know.

When Roger and Claudia returned from the chapel, we prayed together for some time, asking God to confirm that Roger and Claudia’s decision to leave was the right one for all concerned. Finally, Roger spoke up saying, “You’re going to think this is pretty dumb but I’ve been listening to my mind all day, yet my heart has been crying out, “No, don’t go!” Then he started crying. When I realized that Roger was changing his mind and that they were going to stay, I was greatly relieved. Pretty soon we were all crying and embracing each other. Praise God that he returned Roger and Claudia to us and answered our prayers! Roger stood up and prayed for guidance in the days ahead and as he spoke I felt immense relief, joy and thankfulness that God had changed Roger’s heart. Hurrah! We weren’t going to lose them after all! Curiously, Claudia sat very quietly over in a corner saying very little. I wasn’t sure she was completely in agreement. She was crying, but were they tears of relief or of frustration?

Shortly thereafter the Hutterites offered Roger and Claudia some much-needed privacy. They arranged for them to enjoy a weekend retreat in the old stone farmhouse. It was a wonderful, romantic time for them to finally be alone! Dear brother Fred even snuck in a bottle of wine. Lovely! I had no idea what big changes were thus set in motion that night…

Realizing that buying the nearby farm was never going to be a viable option, we accepted the sad fact it was time to move on. For whatever reason, we didn’t even seriously consider the idea of a distant farm as a viable possibility. We decided to put together a final performance of poetry readings, hymns, music and songs to present to the brethren before leaving. We practiced a Japanese Noh play and a song David Lynch wrote called “The Lord Will Provide.” In the meantime, the prophecies continued. Johanna came by one afternoon saying the Lord had given her a word for us: “Come ye out from amongst these my people.”

Shortly thereafter, we held another meeting during which Shipen clearly laid out how he envisioned our group and that he realized now that it would have been nearly impossible to join in a venture with the brethren because of their high anxiety and fearfulness. Shipen then shared his concerns that maybe we should return to New York. Later during services in the chapel, sister Margaret shared a prophecy in which she saw a plane with a broken wing circling around the farm and being tossed to the wind. She felt the plane was being called back to New York and it arrived there safely. Was the Lord calling us to start a farm/retreat ministry somewhere else? Did He want us to uproot totally and return to New York? Were these prophecies from God or images born of the mistrust and discomfort the brethren felt with our being in the middle of their community? [Eventually, we did return to New York city - many, many months later and much further into our adventures together.]

The next day one of the Hutterite women had another prophecy for us...There were two groups. One group was dressed in white (the farm brethren) and another group (the bus people) were under an umbrella like structure which dimmed their view (of spiritual things). There was a figure in black between us all (the hippie spirit). Hmmm. Shipen took this as another indication that the gulf between our two communities was widening and there were too many deep differences separating us which prevented us from having a common vision. Later Julius dropped by and suggested we visit a community called Koinania in Georgia.

Over the next three days we packed, cleaned, sorted out clothing, built shelving for the bus and even washed the bus engine. We finalized our new daily prayer service called “The Trees Liturgy” and had copies printed up. We held a communion service on the bus using our newly printed Tree’s Liturgy. The blue booklet included psalms, readings, prayers and hymns and began with the following passage written by Shipen, which bears the hallmark of his mystic roots:

“Now say thus saith the Lord God, I am in your antechamber as a seed forming in the fruit – when the ripe fruit falls I will gather for you a new tree, and I will name it again after the fruit that fed me from my first tree. Then I will take that tree which is mine in the seed, and plant it in the kingdom of God; in that I shall transplant it through a fiery ordeal and it will be remade supreme in eternity, from whence its idea emerged in the word at the beginning.

Now brethren, through faith in Christ Jesus, know that this is talking in the man brightly, that our love for the Lord may be bound in truth. For I say unto thee, that no man goes to the Father but through the Son whose name is Wonderful Giver, Jesus Christ our Lord – by faith in His blood, our chambers are made glowing by apportionment through Christ, from the light of lights. Our Father, which art in heaven unto His own.

The grace of our Lord, Jesus Chris, and the Love of the Saints, be with you all, evermore.”

August 27, 1971 was our last full day at the farm. I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholy as I worked one last time packing noodles in the noodle factory. I took mental snapshots in my mind, trying to save visual images of these wonderful people and the farm so I would never forget them. How could I leave my good friends? What would become of Fred, Julius, Johanna, Violet, Margaret, Nabile, and all the children I had grown close to over the past three months? Various brethren stopped by including, of course, our good friend Julius, bringing special gifts and goodbye messages.

I was having a hard time leaving my special farm pet, Henrietta the chicken. I had freed her from her cage and hand fed her ever since. Often, she sat on my shoulder and pecked gently at my hair. Reluctantly, I gave her over to one of the children only after she promised not to let her ever be eaten! My sadness was eased by the antics of our new kittens. The farm children had given us three kittens that we named Buki, Emma and Uzi II. Emma was my favorite. She was snow white with one green eye and one blue.

Shipen and three kittens (Buki, Uzi II and Emma) 1971

There were many hugs and tears. Old Fred came by with a wonderful surprise, a check in the amount of $2,000 from the brethren in payment for all our labor. Looking at the mischievous smile on Old Fred’s face as he handed us the check, once again a wave of sadness swept over me. We had been among people of substance. These Hutterites were truly the loving people of God.

For some odd reason just before our farewell service, David and Shipen decided they had just enough time to drop off a load of garbage. Well, they would have except the bus ran out of gas! They had to hitchhike home, making it back just in time for the ringing of the bell for prayers. They rushed in as the rest of us were busy tuning up our instruments and the chapel filled up with Hutterites.

Fred opened with a sermon and prayer. Next Shipen gave a moving speech about our hope and longing to be one with them and thanked God for the love that had grown between us. Then we performed a small concert for about a half hour. David Lynch played guitar as we sang “The Lord Will Provide” accompanied also by sitar and cello. Next were readings from scripture: Isaiah 61:1-6, Ezekiel 17:22-24, Isaiah 57: 6-13, Psalm 29 and Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stands in the way of sinners…
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
That yields its fruit in season
And its leaf does not wither…
(Psalm 1, NIV Bible)

We sang the Apple Tree in the Orchard song and Lord of the Dance followed by a Spiritual song (impromptu singing) and a closing prayer. We ended by moving slowly out of the chapel as the now weeping Hutterites sang Alleluia, Alleluia over and over. Soon everyone joined in singing and then the brethren changed the words to “Farewell, Farewell…” until I could no longer hold back my tears. The brethren gently sang, “until we meet again, may God be with you.” That did it. I was swept away in a sea of emotions as I shared hugs, kisses and tearful goodbyes.

In the morning after communion on the bus, we joined the brethren for our last breakfast in the big dining hall. Reluctantly, we climbed in the bus and drove down the driveway ringing Sanctus bells from the windows. My heart was filled with bittersweet emotion. As we drove past Old Fred standing next to his wife Teresa his smile seemed as bright as the sun. None of us could stop crying as Teresa lifted her handkerchief to cover her own tears and the bus slowly pulled away from the farm. I felt sadness mixed with love as we drove away from the Community Farm of the Brethren.

What did the Lord want us to do now? Why was it every time I started to feel things were really going great, all of a sudden we had to leave? Would we ever get a farm or a place of our own?