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 bands of a worried man's strife: Some disturbing Experiences

Jesus-He knows-why a selfish man closes
His heart to his own cry for life.
Only his peace can loosen the hands
And the bands of a worried man’s strife

Jesus-He knows-the heartbreak of Mexico,
The sun parched suffering of Spain.
He knows how an oak tree dies in the heat
On the languishing grass of a plain

But lo I am with you always
Even to the end of the world.
I am truth, I am Life.
I will come again
I bring my kingdom without end
The far reaches of the earth
Will have light.

                            ...from our song Jesus He Knows

Our next destination was a lovely cottage on Clear Lake in West Branch, Michigan where Shipen’s parents still lived. For the next few weeks we enjoyed swimming, playing music and visiting with Shipen’s family and friends. Early in the morning during morning prayers, Shipen received an urgent phone call about a close friend of his named “Dale.” His mother was very upset, explaining that Dale had “flipped out” on LSD and jumped through a plate glass window, yelling something about committing suicide to save the world. “Please,” she begged, “Can you try to find him?”

Shipen, David, Ariel and Roger leapt into the family car and combed the neighborhood for Dale. Shipen led the search to all their old haunts around town. Finally they spotted him striding down the middle of Highway 55 with brisk, determined steps. He had ripped off his shirt and bright red blood streamed down from cuts on his face and chest leaving a crimson trail along the blacktop. His injuries had a surreal quality to them, as if he was part of a Dali painting. Mindful of how easily an acid trip can go bad, Shipen stepped out of the car and gently tried to coax him into the car as they strode along the deserted road.

Oblivious to his surroundings, Dale marched on with a rapid, staccato gait. After about a mile, David Lynch joined them in their strange parade down the middle of the highway. Finally, with Shipen and David on either side they managed to guide him to the side of the road. Dale kept insisting the world was totally corrupt and that he had to keep walking to find release from all worldly ties. Shipen countered that corruption exists in all of us and that only by God’s grace can we be freed to become children of the light. At that point Dale finally agreed to accept a ride back to the cottage where he called his mother to let her know he was safe. We washed him up, bandaged his cuts (nothing serious) and gave him some breakfast. A little while later he lay down in a back bedroom and fell into a deep sleep. When he finally woke up he was relaxed and clear-headed and he seemed quite serene when he eventually left. Over the next two weeks we met with Dale frequently, and by the time we left, Dale was well on the way to mending the broken fragments of his life.

I thoroughly enjoyed our lakeside vacation! Our days were structured with The Trees Liturgy, prayers, our new midday “Psalmody and Trumpet” and evening prayers. Yet how delightful to be able to relax, laugh and kick back with swimming, sailing, and water skiing. Shipen’s mom prepared some delicious dinners and the vacation worked wonders on our morale.

We were within a few hours of Leelanau, the boarding school where I first met Shipen. His sister Judy invited us to their Homestead condo there so Shipen, Ariel, Roger, Claudia, Naomi and I left for the weekend. While there I ran into some of my old schoolmates. They were having a party later that evening with other Leelanau alumni and invited us all to join them. I eagerly accepted but the others (wisely as it turned out) declined.

I felt a little awkward when I arrived at the party to find everyone laughing, drinking beer, smoking and listening to loud rock music. An old classmate “Jim” asked me what I had been doing with my life? Feeling embarrassed, I nevertheless told him about my experiences since I left Leelanau and my newfound faith. I noticed snickering and knowing glances and it dawned on me that they were not at all interested in how I came to find the Lord. Turning the conversation back to him, I listened quietly as things grew more and more rowdy. Eventually, I grew so uncomfortable I excused myself saying I wasn't feeling well. I slipped outside into the night, chiding myself for opening my big mouth. What is the matter with you Shishonee! Don’t you know when to keep quiet? That was really, really stupid! They were drunk. They weren’t ready to hear your testimony! As I headed back to the condo, I realized I was still holding the loaf of bread I had brought as a gift. I stood debating with myself but finally turned around, determined to just hand it over quickly and then leave.

I approached the door but before I could ring the bell, I overheard everyone laughing, mocking my words, and then screaming out the Lord’s Prayer. Deeply humiliated, I rang the doorbell, thrust the bread at whoever answered and then fled. As I rushed through my old campus that night, I was flooded with a range of emotions...What was wrong with me anyways? Why did it seem like I was always on the outside looking in? Why did I go there in the first place?

Before I could reach the condo, I heard footsteps behind me in the dark. I jumped as I felt a hand on my shoulder but thankfully, it was only Jim. He apologized for the way the others had acted and assured me he’d been touched by what I'd said. Through his words I felt the Lord gently reaching His arm around my shoulders to let me know that despite my shortcomings, He still loved me just the way I was. After Jim left, I stood gazing upward at a blanket of stars glittering in the inky black sky. I realized I had come a long way from the old Shishonee and I could never go back. As we drove back to West Branch early in the morning, I recalled the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring love
Where there is injury, pardon
And where there's doubt, faith.
Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there's despair, let
me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there's sadness ever joy
Oh Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled, as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love with all my soul
Make me a channel of your peace
It is in pardoning that we a
re pardoned
In giving to everyone that we receive
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.

On September 5th, 1971 we were invited to sing at our first church service at the Methodist church in West Branch. Five days later we gave our first concert at Jordan nursing home in West Branch. It was to be the start of our new ministry of music.

At that first concert, I felt a bit awkward but the residents were all smiles, welcoming us politely. Those early songs were unsophisticated and full of simple melodies, raw energy and a lot of musical improvisation. The highlight was David Lynch belting out his song, You Gotta Have Love in your Heart on guitar accompanied by the seniors clapping and ringing all kinds of different bells we'd passed around. [Eventually this was dubbed The Bell Song]. They listened attentively to The Lord will Provide and joined in singing Rock of Ages and What a Friend we Have in Jesus. We brought things back down with my harp song He Was Wrapped in Flesh, and David’s See the Apple Tree in the Orchard, a favorite of the Hutterites. Then Shipen told the astonishing story of how God drew us together. We ended with “Dance, Dance, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said He” as we walked slowly toward the back of the room. Afterwards, the residents rushed up to pump our hands, their eyes bright with excitement while others inspected our exotic looking instruments. This first concert taught us the importance of pacing, order and placement of the music. I was surprised at how the music had touched these dear people and I sensed the power in this type of ministry. I realized I loved performing. This is it! I thought. This is my calling!

On September 8, 1971, the Bay City Press sent a photographer and reporter to interview us and shoot some pictures. All ten of us climbed onto the bus or sat in front of it until it seemed they had just the right shots. [Photo taken by Norm Barry].

On September 10, 1971, Paul Greiner arrived from New York City. A transplanted Frenchmen, he had lived with us off and on during our early Loft days. He joined our community looking tired and worn out from his trip. Paul was a kind, careful, fastidious man who was deeply spiritual with a brilliant mind. I adored his delightful French accent and sharp wit. Everything Paul did he did eloquently and with grace.

With his humble manner and quiet countenance, he immediately fit right into our small family.  With Paul's arrival our group consisted of eleven souls: Stephanie Arje, Ariel (Phillip) Dross, Naomi Goldman, Paul Greiner, Claudia and Roger Gumbiner, David Karasek, Shipen, David Lynch, Sarah Benstein, and myself, Shishonee Ruetenik. Three days later, renewed, refreshed and ready to move on, we said our goodbyes to Shipen's doting parents and pointed the bus toward St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan.