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.

Terebinths of Integrity: The Trees at Plowcreek Farm

Visiting Plowcreek Farm

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that someone took and sewed in his field;
it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown
it is the greatest of all shrubs and becomes a tree,
so that the birds of the air come
and make nests in its branches.

Matthew 13: 31-32

October 25th. We drove out of Evanston ringing Sanctus bells from the open windows. Ken and Shipen drove in shifts heading to Plowcreek Farm in Tiskilwa, Illinois. We had heard of the farm from the Reba Place brethren and felt called to visit them. As we drove, Shipen argued amiably about the theory of evolution versus the biblical version of creation with Ken. I preferred to watch autmn’s colorful countryside out of the bus windows.

When we arrived at the farm, we were shown a spot to park for the night. Almost immediately both Shipen and Paul proceeded to snore LOUDLY all night long. Being such a light sleeper, I was getting more and more sleep deprived. I stuffed earplugs in my ears, snuggled inside my sleeping bag and then wrapped my pillow tightly around my head. No use. I barely got a wink of sleep. As dawn broke, I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag for communion and then breakfast. Immediately afterwards, we offered our services to this community. Plowcreek farm was building a new house on their farmland so our men pitched in to help dig its foundation, then puttied windows or did carpentry work on another house while we women helped bake bread or babysat eight sweet little children.

After dinner, Ken had a taste of his first family meeting. Thankfully, there was no picking or harping on one another, just confessions and then prayers. I chimed in asking that God might somehow find a way for all God’s people to find peace and rest. That night I was immensely relieved when the men slept in a loft of the barn so I was finally able to get a quiet night’s sleep.

At the building site, someone suggested that the foundation holes for the new building would make an excellent location for a photo shoot. David Karasek grabbed a camera and we each climbed into a hole, stretching forth our hands to the heavens to become eight terebinths of integrity. The prophecy Sister Cleo planted for a new name now took root and from then on we became “The Trees Community”.

That night, Stephanie prepared a delicious dinner in the bus kitchen. After eating our fill of bean burgers, potatoes, and biscuits, Stephanie brought out her homemade peach pie! Delightful! Afterwards, feeling stuffed, we continued our long discussions with Ken about evolution, demons, sin and evil.

Several days into our stay, one of the Plowcreek brothers approached us testifying that “man is as the head in Christ over women” and admonishing us that according to the Bible, all women should be completely submissive to men, especially to their husbands. We took issue with this literal scriptural interpretation. Though we believed in submitting to an elder who was in a position of authority and in submitting ourselves to Christ, this was different. This was a different kind of submission based merely on gender which we felt was just wrong. We argued that scripture was written by men who were a product of their time but our arguments were not accepted. Encountering this kind of rigid Biblical literalism was not uncommon in our travels. We attempted to deflect the contentious atmosphere by offering our best expression of good will: physical labor. Still influenced by the strong example set by the Hutterites, we worked hard doing whatever was needed.

After a week at Plowcreek, things had grown tense given the daily theological arguments with Ken, the inner discontent and disagreements amongst ourselves, and all manner of differences and disapproval from the Plowcreek folks. After only seven days Ken was not adjusting to our community. His chief complaints were over our basic theological differences: our belief in the devil, demons, sin and evil, his feeling he was not innately a sinner, our belief in regular confessions to a person as opposed to privately confessing to God, along with other issues. After dinner, David Lynch and Shipen fell to arguing about evolution versus the Biblical interpretation of creation. The evening disintegrated into sullen anger and bristling resentment.

Outside the thin metal walls of the bus a storm raged, the wind howling and rattling the windows. As we settled in, Ken announced he was going to leave. This led to a stormy argument inside the bus as we attempted to persuade him to stay. Ken remained steadfast and insisted he was leaving. Eventually, we turned the matter over to God in prayer. Sadly, the next day Ken left. It was disappointing. It seemed as if I hardly knew him before poof, he was gone.

Each morning was a little colder and tensions mounted within our community as well as between Plowcreek and us. Our theological differences and disagreements over scriptural interpretations seemed insurmountable. Each meeting between our two groups grew more tense than the last. The deal breaker was their perception of Jesus. They argued that Jesus was just a good teacher and human being like us and not divine, not God incarnate, nor part of the holy trinity. We could not accept that. When Canon West heard about it, he was gravely concerned and made sure to advise us this was absolutely not the case. Later that issue was to become a major point of clarification for us during our educational sessions with Canon West.

Another point on which we diverged was psychology. It began when Stephanie had gone to help a young girl who was going through psychotherapy sessions. She was being taken to these sessions four times a day, which involved some kind of new “patterns” technique. It was our belief that instead of turning to psychology for help that she should instead pray that God heal her. They believed psychology was a useful tool for healing. At the time, we did not. On another occasion, Stephanie came upon one of the women beating a child with a stick. She scolded the woman insisting this was not loving or godly.

There were several more meetings with the Plowcreek elders with long discussions about psychology as a tool for spiritual healing and the divinity of Jesus. It became increasingly clear that our differences created a chasm that could not be breached.

On November 10th, we were informed there would be no more meetings, that our help was no longer needed and we were asked to leave. Disheartened and discouraged we agreed to go. The evening before we left, we held one final prayer service with the Plowcreek brethren and some visiting Hutterites. We all managed to be gracious, thanked each other publicly and prayed for one another. After the service, we called a contact, Rev. Bill Cohea in Chicago and made arrangements to visit his church.

The following morning we battened everything down and David climbed into the driver’s seat. He fired up the engine but when he tried to punching it into gear he realized there was no clutch! For the next five hours, we struggled to get the bus going. Eventually, with some help, we limped off, headed to Chicago. Just ten blocks from our destination in the heart of Chicago, we pulled into a gas station to refuel when the bus again died. Oh come on! The owner came out ranting and raving that we better get off his property so we all had to pile out of the bus and push it down the road. That must have been a sight! We called Rev. Bill Cohea who located a friendlier mechanic who came over and soon got the bus running again. Meanwhile, he drove us to Lakeside Presbyterian Church for dinner and a prayer meeting. That night we women slept in the church while the men snored away in the bus parked behind the church. We stayed in Chicago for a few days, performing at the Sunday service and joining in a family conference there. We sang at another senior complex. The stress of living on the crowded bus was setting all of us on edge, and we were all increasingly desperate for a peaceful place of refuge.

We’d been told of Gethsemani, a Roman Catholic monastery in the hills of Bardstown, Kentucky so on November 14th we pointed the bus southward. This was where Thomas Merton had lived and having heard a lot about Gethsemani, we were eager to visit. At first, things didn’t seem promising. In response to our phone call, we were told by the monk who answered that we could not stay there. Nevertheless, with no other options, we ventured on faithfully, praying that if it were God’s will, the gates would be open when we arrived.