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.

Canon West - A Different Authority

Canon West and his cherished Irish Setters

On May 3rd, 1972, Shipen, Ariel, and David Lynch left for New York City to visit Canon West and Rodney Kirk to seek advice on what we should do. Should we stay at Redeemer or leave? Should we remain a traveling ministry? Should we form a religious, contemplative order? In the interim, Jim Bailey (a member of North Main) was appointed our elder. Meanwhile, the rest of us fasted for three days praying for a successful meeting.

Shipen soon called with some surprising news. They had met with Canon West and he suggested our community should consider learning more about becoming a monastic order. To accomplish this, the men should consider entering a monastery such as Gethsemani and the women could enter the Community of the Holy Spirit for a period of a year or two before considering forming our own new religious order. Canon West felt strongly we should form a religious order but he didn't think it was possible for it to be made up of both men and women (months later, he changed his mind.) He promised to mentor us and suggested that in the meantime, we should "travel and be about our business" and be sure to write him every two weeks during our journeys. This was not the answer I wanted to hear. I wanted to know if we should stay and join Redeemer or leave and continue our ministry of music to the body of Christ. Unfortunately, this was not Canon West's way of advising us.

I found it frustrating. I needed concrete direction and I wanted Canon West to give us explicit advice like: “Yes, you should keep playing music, travel to churches around the country and give concerts” or “No, you should buy a farm near Gethsemani and start selling goat cheese” but this was not his way. It was particularly maddening that Shipen, David and Ariel drove all the way to New York City to seek his guidance and, in the end, all he would said was “travel and be about your business.” That was not specific enough for me! What was our “business”? How would we make enough money to live? Travel where? Furthermore, my roots were getting tired of being ripped up every time they began stretching out and getting comfortable and they were in need of some rich, permanent soil!

After the New York visit, the Symphony decided to accept Canon West as our father – even if from a distance. In Redeemer-speak, we agreed to submit to his authority. This deeply reverent and humble man thus became our advisor and the abbot to our community.

I had great respect for Canon West. To me, Canon West was always somewhat of an enigma. He surrounded himself with beautiful religious artifacts like jewel studded Faberge eggs, or ancient silver framed icons, yet he eschewed materialism and counseled living a life of poverty. He was deeply reverent and an authority on early Christian texts, yet he wandered the Cathedral grounds dressed in kilts, cassocks and loved dressing up in flamboyant religious regalia. He lived a simple, quiet life yet thoroughly enjoyed all the trappings of Episcopal high church pomp and ceremony. Though he was the abbot of several religious communities and hobnobbed with the Queen of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other extremely influential religious leaders and heads of state, he carefully avoided wielding power. In fact, Canon West was the antithesis of the rich and powerful (despite his being so attracted to them). Over the years, Shipen turned to Canon West as a son would his father, seeking his counsel and advice. In his oddly distant and unfathomable way, Canon West responded, leading us without taking a position of power, allowing us to stumble along and make mistakes along the way.

Shipen wrote the first of many letters to Canon West on May 27, 1972 to thank him for his support and reflect on our need for direction and a place to belong:

May 27, 1972

Dear Father West,

It is hard for us to express our gratitude to you for taking on a bunch of incompetents as we are. The support is so real and so complete that our understanding is boggled, and we are left to be happy and to reflect on all the things that happened those ten days in N.Y.C. We bless the Lord more and more for His taking us under wing and providing for us a man who takes away our mistrust and allows us to find our way of bearing the pain of sacrifice.

There are, of course, many questions that emerge, but in general the countenance of the whole family has risen, and we again may find rest in being foolish human beings at work to praise the Lord. The part that made us vulnerable to envy, the Lord has sealed in our “belonging” and in our “becoming” full “members incorporate”, by way of one whose love cannot be denied, namely our beloved Father West, who we are so anxious to love more and more.

Our main question centers around confession for the family, and our part as the three who you “know.” Also of whether we would be welcome to eventually return to New York. Knowing the death of starvation that has drawn us continually for short times to be with you for renewals. There is a weariness in being on the road without a resting spot.

There are two young men who feel called to come into the family. Larry R. 23 and James B. 24, both have been warned! And we all need prayer s in this.

We have been asked to make a presentation of music to the church here and are awaiting approval, also indicating it to be a departure concert.

We are in question as to how to continue to grow, whether as wanderers, or to line up church visits, and how this can be done, and by what authority. Singing to monks is a special blessing for us.

The family and I hope you can feel our gratitude and we will strive to do as Jesus calls us to.

Love as He did,

Shipen and the Trees

P.S. We have often wondered why as the trees group, we should have a road address in West Branch, Michigan, until the Lord said to ponder on the West branch of His tree of life.

As Shipen mentioned in his letter, we soon gained two new members when two “Redeemerites”, Jim Bailey and Larry Renfroe officially joined our group in late May, even if only for a brief time. Both met first with the Redeemer elders to get official permission and of course met with us to be sure they understood what it entailed. It would be a big change for them, and of course, for us as well. Also Grace K. met with us on several occasions raising the idea of also joining our group. We all agreed to pray about that possibility too.

The week of May 15th, Claudia finally went in to labor. She gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Joshua. Praise God! We went over to visit Roger, Claudia and their new baby as soon as we could. The only complication she had was a headache caused by a spinal. We had a new baby brother, Praise God! He was healthy, full of wonder and so tiny I could hardly believe it. The Lord blessed us with a new instrumental Chinese sounding song in his honor that we named, “Joshua’s Bird Song.” We gathered for a picture and Shipen could hardly contain his happiness for Roger and Claudia.

Shipen holding newborn Joshua Gumbinner

To raise money for our departure, Ariel had the idea of selling bonsai trees. There was some disagreement about the ethics of the endeavor since true bonsai trees take years to prune and grow whereas these were churned out in under an hour. Nevertheless, they set about pruning and potting the “bonsai” trees, which they tried to sell to different stores - no luck. Eventually they rented a booth in an open-air market and sold every last one for a total of $250!

We made preparations to leave Redeemer, purchasing 800 pounds of food and fixing up the bus by taking apart the kitchen area and redesigning it. The men built a long pantry cabinet around the gas oven with drawers for silverware, dishes,pots and pans and underneath were separate bins that could easily slide open from the front. This was a refreshing change from having to lift off the countertop to access the 100 pounds bins of rice, beans, oats or miso paste. There were sixteen different drawers, carefully placed so that all kitchen, cleaning and writing utensils were immediately accessible. The counter was covered with earth colored tiles. Above the counter they built a long, thin shelf for spices. Above that were barnwood cabinets for storing dishes, paper and canned goods. They designed a built-in kitchen table that converted into a bed at night. We still lacked a bathroom or refrigerator, but at least we had water, a stove and a new kitchen and dining area. The stove was hooked up to a propane gas line that allowed us to bake while we were traveling (which we often did). It saved time to be able to bake bread or a casserole while driving and then pull over at a scenic spot when it was done to eat it.

We prepared a final concert for Redeemer and performed at various locations outside the church. On June 3rd we played at The House of the Risen Sun coffee house and also Sagemont Presbyterian Church. Our set was: He was wrapped in Flesh, Hosanna, The Bell Song, Country Song, Fervently we Pray, I Wander, Joshua’s Bird Song (named after Roger and Claudia’s baby boy), Jesus He Knows and Sweet Jesus. We also worked on two new songs, Trilogy and Rothko, for a performance at Rothko Chapel at St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas. The final five days were busy ones as we got ready to leave by putting in the water tanks and adding the finishing touches to the new kitchen. David Karasek finished the bus mural with a landscape of colorful trees, hills and an ocean.

Unfortunately, we were informed by the elders that we could not give a final concert at the Church of the Redeemer. It was one more disappointing blow, which Shipen outlined in his letter to Canon West:

June 9, 1972

Dear Father West:

Thanks be to God for you all! Each day brings us closer to the desire to be fully obedient and to love with a pure heart. At this point however, we are somewhat frustrated due to our ongoing relationship to the Church of the Redeemer. As I mentioned on the phone we had been denied our request to make a departure presentation to the congregation. We are left feeling a bit rejected, but trying hard not to pass judgment. The elders here have taken the matter back to council for reconsideration. Their stated reason for not granting our request was that they didn’t feel the relationship between the Symphony and them had been sufficiently healed, and that our request sounded to them as a political coercive move to bring about a statement of love that didn’t exist in truth. I think I may have overstepped into my bullyhood, I pray I may be forgiven. I do also pray for a miracle in regard to the struggle of the past six months to come to a relationship of eternal worth. It seems there are so many areas that we are weak in, chief amoung them is our desire for there to be an ecumenical unity, a corporate relationship of trust between all parts of the church. Each bite hurts, but in our failure, as you so lovingly have said, “there is salvation.”

Father, one of the hardest orders for you to give us was the one you did, to continue on as we were. We feel such tremendous support in that. I pray that we not become self involved again, but merely give what we have without our own interpretation of its reasons or benefits. Most of the time I feel such a fervent desire to be at your heels constantly for council, but I see how you love us now.

Larry and Jim did make the move to join the family,
and now we ask prayers for Grace K. who is trying to make a sober decision. If Grace joins us we will be ten, which puts us to capacity for the amount of room we have in the bus. I had thought we might be more comfortable with seven. Will I never stop fighting.

The Symphony has been constantly singing and enjoying fellowship. We've done one coffeehouse performance and one Presbyterian Sunday service, plus four house performances in the last week. We have been asked also to do a presentation in the Rothko Chapel here, which sounds interesting and will allow us to further experiment. The Sunday night experimental sound and story group has grown in the fervency to create to the Glory of God. Last Sunday the group, now twenty, sang spontaneously for one and one half hours without stopping. The story subject was Christ’s mercy gently seeking a response in a seemingly impossible mankind, and the miracle of love, his finding us.

Father, if you have any thoughts concerning our forthcoming journey, please let us know, the desert looms large in our desire.”

Love in Christ, Shipen

Packing up knapsacks in preparation of leaving Redeemer

On June 17th, we took all of our clothes and heaped them up into a huge overflowing pile in the living room. It was time to reduce this down to what would fit into our knapsacks and set the rest aside for a thrift shop. The funniest part to me was how every time someone tossed something into the pile, David Lynch would dive in to retrieve it. Lists and more lists were created of everything we might need. We stocked up on supplies at Kmart and Sears: new knapsacks for Larry and Jim, sleeping bags, equipment, water tanks, a huge tent and other odds and ends.

On Father’s Day, June 18, 1972, after a delicious breakfast we attended an Eastern Orthodox Church for services. There were icons and pictures all around the church and the sermon was a story of two monks, desert fathers, who were our true fathers. We were invited to perform at their 50-year convention with eight bishops and an archbishop, another affirmation of our musical calling. That evening we learned that Paul Greiner would be leaving us. He had finally received news that Graham Pulkingham gave his blessing on his decision to return to France to attend seminary there. I would miss him!

The last musical jam session with the “Experimental Song and Story” crowd was bittersweet. That evening it included: Max Dyer, Jeanette, Nicki, Mary Pulkingham, Bonnie, Ferris, Mark, Matthew, Grace Kraig, Toni and Steve Garfinkle. For the session, everyone picked up an instrument they were not used to playing and attempted to play a motif or just whatever sounds they could create. It was to be our last “jam” session with fellow Redeemer musicians.

On June 21st we performed at Rothko Chapel, an unusual blend of art gallery and religious space filled with the dark, evocative paintings of modern artist Mark Rothko. It was a dramatic space full of contrasts, an excellent backdrop for our music.

Rehearsing at Rothko Chapel

The chapel walls were hung with massive paintings, dwarfing and surrounding us on all sides. The paintings were from artist Mark Rothko’s “dark” period and were painted in broad expanses of black streaked with dark hues of red, like pain staining the canvases. For me, these paintings mirrored the undercurrents of depression and loss caused by losing half our family to Redeemer. Rothko’s art echoed the depth of pain in my heart.

The Rothko performance began with a strident, discordant chord of sound, “Holy…Holy…Holy” – with each of us singing a slightly different note. The dissonant words reverberated throughout the cavernous chapel. With the chord as backdrop, Shipen read from scripture, “What a retched state I am in…I am lost…I am a man of unclean lips…and yet mine eyes have seen the Lord…”

This was followed by Psalm 42, “As a doe longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you oh God.” Then a raga, Baptism, and other heavy, intense pieces. David Lynch and I then spoke about loneliness, depression and the pain of living without the Lord and about the comfort that comes after a struggle. This led into a new instrumental song we dubbed Rothko, ending with the more positive Jesus Fugue and a benediction. It was a powerful, dramatic performance, made even more so by the incredible acoustics of the space.

On June 23, 1972, after six months at Redeemer, the day finally arrived for our departure. It had been a difficult period of turmoil, pain and growth. I found it very hard to leave so many dear friends whom I had lived and worked alongside. It was even harder to leave behind our former branches: Roger, Claudia, Naomi, Paul and Stephanie. Paul would soon be heading off to seminary in France. Roger and Claudia were settling down to raise a family. Stephanie and Naomi were beginning a new ministry at Redeemer. This time as we headed out west, the bold scripture verses that previously adorned the bus were gone. The Lord’s word instead was growing inside us. We gathered in a circle and prayed for one another, asking that God’s will be done for all of us. Then we were off, to begin the next leg of our journey, on our way to Austin, Texas.