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.
He knows how an oak tree feels in the Evening: On our way again
On November 28, after more gifts, prayers and blessings, we reluctantly left Gethsemani and drove to visit the Sisters of Nazareth for a brief performance for the nuns. Then we were off to Berea College in Kentucky where we met with groups of students to pray and witness, sharing our beliefs and give a concert.
After a few days at the college, an odd thing happened. Ariel completely disappeared! Alarmed, we looked everywhere and asked around but it was if he had just vanished. I honestly wondered if he'd been kidnapped or had a heart attack or something. Calls to local hospitals proved fruitless so we prayed throughout the afternoon and evening for him. The next morning, still no Ariel, so we were forced to continue our meetings and performances without him as our worries grew. Was he o.k? Had he decided to leave?
Finally, late in the day Ariel called from Florida! Florida? He was staying at a friend Rudy’s but insisted he'd left us a note along with some money in a box on the bus. He aplogized for upsetting everyone but he'd assumed we would find the note and the note would explain everything. He was very apologetic for leaving without telling us beforehand but felt he could not continue with us - he just had to get away to sort things out in his head. This came as a total shock to me. Belatedly I recalled how Ariel had been restless, like a caged lion pacing in its cage, increasingly unhappy and frustrated. I recalled that the day we left Gethsemani, Ariel came to the group to express his unhappiness and discontent. After a long family discussion (which I don't think really got to what exactly was bothering him), he’d resumed his air of grace and gentility so I assumed he had worked out his personal problems – not so. After his call, I prayed for Ariel to find God’s purpose, which I hoped would bring him back to the Trees.
On December 6th (my birthday), we packed up and left the college. The mood was somber and I felt shaken and distressed at having lost Ariel. We decided to stop in Atlanta to visit members of the theater group Stomp, a group we had known in New York City. On the way we stopped briefly to perform for the patients at Marymount College Hospital, then off we drove for Georgia. We stopped in Tennessee to eat, celebrate my birthday and rest for the night.
David Lynch wrote the traditional poem for my birthday card, beautifully painted by David K as usual:
Jesus, My Lily of the Valley
After the rainstorm
The sky cleareth, and the sun’s brilliance
Doth reveal a lily growing steadily
In the valley by the river of life.
She is born in the tears of the earth,
As a seed of faith’s planting; a promise
Of the hope of glory, and called to be a
Child of God.
My lily, come thou most precious, my love,
Drink of the waters of life.
Draw freely long draughts of the
Goodness of the Lord
His mercy doth refresh thee.
His voice comfort thee.
His arm surround thee in sweetness
More than the finest spices.
My sister, the Lord doth protect you,
For He hath caused an orchard of his peace
To grow up around you, and a
Gentle wind to strengthen and nourish
His spirit he hath put in you: to lift you,
To touch your heart, and draw you
Night to Him
Our love, our prayer, our celebration –
Lovely! The next morning, as we pulled away, there was a sudden loud explosion from under the hood followed by a rapid series of grinding noises that ended with one horrible Boom! The old white bus was completed incapacitated, luckily, near a gas station. Unfortunately the diagnosis was: You need a new engine. Oh boy. First Ariel, now this.
As if guided by an angel, we met a Christian named Billy who introduced us to the minister of a nearby Church of Christ. We women were invited to sleep in the church overnight while our men stayed on the bus as the new engine was installed. The next day we reconvened back on the bus for another family meeting to make our own internal repairs: talking over resentments, disagreements, and what was bothering each of us. I expressed my upset and annoyance at how Ariel had left and how it made me feel...others chimed in then we ended with a scripture reading.
With the bus repaired, we drove to Atlanta to visit Stomp. Upon approaching, it seemed dark and kind of spooky. Peering into the windows we saw nothing but dark, empty rooms. Disappointed, we headed to 917 Piedmont Avenue looking for the House of Judea, a Christian community we had heard about from Love-Inn and the House of Life. When we arrived, we discovered that the house had been taken over by the Children of God and was being used as one of their “training centers.” To make matters worse, just as we were about to leave our cat Buki disappeared and we spent hours looking for him. Rats! Eventually, he scampered out from under a bedspread on the bus, so finally, annoyed and extremely peaved, we headed off, then pulled off the road for the night.
At this point, we firmly believed that the Holy Spirit was in control - God was in the driver's seat, sending us to serve. Next Stop - Our Lady of the Holy Ghost Monastery where we had to wait several hours before we could meet with anyone. Finally, we were given a tight-lipped smile and a firm nudge to be on our way with a donation of $40 for “lunch money.” Believing, however, that we were called by God to be there, we offered to perform, work or meet in fellowship trying to convince the abbot to let us at least visit for a short while. Unfortunately, he made it resoundingly clear we were not welcome saying something like “your guitars and hippy ways will never see the inside of this place!” Alrighty then. We thanked him for the donation, “shook the dust off our feet” and left. Somebody had their signals crossed, that was for sure (or maybe it was time for haircuts again!) Late in the afternoon we drove to Koinania Farms, a community that our Hutterite friend Julius Kubasek had encouraged us to visit.
Here the reception was a little warmer. We were greeted with “Oh, yes, we’ve been expecting you” and were directed down a narrow, potholed road to a campsite where two huge open-sided canvas tents on platforms were set up. One had a stove, refrigerator and sink in it, along with beds and a table. There was running water, outhouses and outdoor showers - Oh joy! The women slept in the tent while the men slept in the bus.
At dawn the next morning a mist enveloped the emerald green woods glistening with dew drops, surrounding the tents like silent sentinels. As I lay awake in my tent, the soft, staccato sounds of raindrops began to patter against the canvas - a gentle counterpoint to criss-crossing bird songs. After morning prayers and breakfast we walked down to the farm to see how we could help out. The brothers and sisters of Koinania reminded me of Plowcreek farm and I felt an odd sense of déjà vu.
After dinner in the main dining hall, Shipen asked to meet with the elders, planning to offer our services for as long as we would be needed. A short time later, brother Ted came down to inform us that, unfortunately, we were only welcome to stay about four or five days, then we would have to move on. Hmmm.
For the next four days we worked on the farm planting blueberry bushes, shelling and sorting pecans, then packaging and weighing shipments in the post office. In the evenings, we talked about marriage, how living is worship, and other points of faith with members of the community. On Sunday, a day of rest, we picked our way through the mud down to the main house for a potluck dinner, study and fellowship. The next day, it rained again so we worked in the post office then returned to the bus and spent several hours once again talking amongst ourselves and "confessing" various frustrations. The biggest ongoing problem that came up centered on sexual frustrations and the inability to let down one’s guard and truly love others because of the fear of being seduced. The discussion turned again to the question of either splitting up our group or re-evaluating everything. After dinner, somewhat disheartened, we nevertheless pulled it together enough to perform for the Koinania community since we would be leaving the next day.
On December 14th, after communion we packed everything back onto the bus and struggled down the slippery, rutted stretch of road trying to avoid deep holes and slippery mud until we ended up at the dining hall for a farewell brunch. After saying our goodbyes, we rang our usual Sanctus bells from the bus windows, bright dancing bell tones cascading through the fog.
As we lumbered along my thoughts kept drifting back to Ariel. Where was he? Was he ever coming back? Was it time for us to split up? What was God calling us to do?
David Lynch recalls what happened next:
We drove through Alabama and on into Florida, driving late into the night looking for a place to stop. Everywhere along the road were cheap motels and strip mall-like spaces. Then we turned left off the beachfront onto a very dark narrow paved road that paralleled the beach. We drove along for several miles with our eyes searching the dark. Then we spied a sandy turnoff to the right. We pulled in and secured the bus, David K bless him, doing his nightly distribution of the oil-lamps. After shortened prayers we quickly bedded down exhausted from the day's travel.
The next morning we were awakened by bright sunshine streaming in through the curtained windows and the sound of several cars cruising slowly by the bus. As the community arose and began the day, some of us walked out of the bus and followed the car tracks to what appeared over the dunes as not only a beautiful bay but as was rapidly ascertained from the "fishermen" probably the finest oyster bed along the whole coast. Breakfast and then lunch on the bus took on all the earmarks of gourmet cuisine as we had raw oysters in their shells along with sautéed oysters lightly tossed with seaweed and brown rice. What a bounty we received from the goodness of the Lord on that day! (Once again I was also thankful for the blessing of gourmet cooks!) The best part of the day for me came when we drove into town to pick up Ariel at the bus station. He had done some soul searching and decided the Lord was calling him to return to the group. Praise God! We rushed up and hugged him, delighted to have him back with us. I thought he seemed more peaceful, settled, and rested.
Our cats Emma and Buki romped and played, chasing sand crabs then racing up the sides of palm trees, thoroughly enjoying their freedom. What a delightful time we had camping out by the ocean! Peaceful - no pressures. I found it totally relaxing to stroll along the beach, sunbath, read and write poetry. We hand printed Christmas cards using cardboard, a carved potato and sliced broccoli. Inside were the lyrics to my new song He Was Wrapped in Flesh. Living off the bounty of the ocean was invigorating. Each day we gathered oysters and then leapt and frolicked in the ocean, jumping and splashing through the crashing waves. Shipen prepared a wonderful festive dinner with hors’doeurves of roasted pecans and the main dish, which Shipen proclaimed, was “stewed oysters flam-boy-yeah”! After dinner, Shipen brought out his sitar, Ariel played tamboura and David joined in on flute. They played a beautiful sunset raga accompanied by the slow, steady rhythm of the ocean waves. What a glorious day! With sheer contentment and a full belly, I sat on the beach listening to the raga and enjoying sparkling diamonds glittering in the waves and the stars flickering in the night sky.
Strand by Stephen Gambill
The crab the crab
sand crystals in the sun
crisp sea petals
the wild sea bass
wanders through volumes
shells like snow
the wave a surprise structure
standing in the bell air
a large razor
that cuts true.
The next day we drove in to town for provisions and on our way back we happened upon another “bus family” living in a bright blue school bus parked along the beach. We stopped to introduce ourselves. Out poured four gregarious children and a young, married couple. I think they were as fascinated with us as we were with them. After swapping stories in that special language of gypsy life, we drove off. Out over the ocean we saw a beautiful rainbow arching over the horizon with dolphins leaping from the blue water beneath. Amazing!
Returning to our home by the bay, we prepared for a special festival day, resting, cooking, reading, and writing. David strummed away on his guitar, working on various songs. At 7:00, we sipped cocktails and then ate another feast celebrating our brief but very relaxing and much needed vacation together. This was the life! I loved it all the more because there were no heated family discussions and no picking at one another.
December 18th. Reluctantly we left our glorious seaside retreat and drove to One Way House in Pensacola where we gave a one-hour concert. Then we were off for a long, bumpy drive to Picayune, Mississippi. We arrived at St. Michael’s Boys Farm just in time for vespers. Afterwards, Father Adams showed us around and introduced us to the boys who were residents at this teaching order for delinquent boys. We were invited to a boisterous dinner with the boys in the dining hall followed by Compline. Then we were split up once again with the women staying in the main house and the men sleeping on the bus.
After shadowing the monks and their charges for most the day, we left to tune and set up, promising the boys a special treat. After vespers, they gathered excitedly in the chapel, which was thick with lingering incense from Vespers. We performed several of our newest songs and Shipen gave a Christmas homily. The boys were remarkably quiet and attentive, exploding into applause after each section. Afterwards, the boys told us they had a surprise for us. They ushered us into a large gym area, and we were treated to a rock concert including a variety of songs from Hendrix and a very special song they had composed for us called "God help me to go another way now" - very sweet.
The next morning we pulled the bus around and parked, intending to drop in on our host before leaving. As we opened the door, there sat Father Adams, working doggedly at his addressograph preparing another mass mailing in hopes of much needed funds. His parting words struck me as somewhat comical, “I keep praying for that million dollar check!”
Unfortunately, as we pulled away, the bus wheels sank into a deep rut in the road and the bus lurched drunkenly to one side. Suddenly the inside of the bus filled with a cloud of steam. A pot of boiling coffee left precariously on the stove flew into the air and splashed all over David Lynch, scalding him. So off we rushed to the hospital with David moaning and rocking back and forth cradling his arm. Curiously, as we waited in the Emergency Room, we ran into the First Baptist youth director and choir director. All of us felt God had drawn us together for a special purpose, so they gave us a stack of tracts and urged us to go proselytizing in New Orleans. So after they gave David some ointment and bandaged him up, we did! Arriving in the French quarter, we parked on a narrow street and piled out. There we stood, looking like long haired Jesus freaks standing outside the smoky bars with tourists laughing and pointing as we passed out “Good News” tracts as naturally as if it was something we did everyday.
Once we ran out of leaflets, we hit the road again and headed toward Houston and Church of the Redeemer. Our intention was to visit Roger and Claudia and learn more about the Redeemer community first hand.
With Shipen in the driver’s seat, we drove on and on through the dark night. I tried to rest in my usual spot with my sleeping bag stretched out on top of the kitchen counter and stove but it was just too bumpy. After a brief rest stop, David took over early in the morning and drove the rest of the way to Roger and Claudia’s house. It was our plan to pull into their driveway and totally surprise them, which left most of us too excited (or too jounced around) to sleep. We managed to find their house on Walker Street and knocked eagerly at their front door. However we were the ones who were surprised. A stranger answered the door and told us they had just left for the airport 20 minutes earlier because Roger’s father had passed away the night before. How sad for Roger.
We drove over to the church where we met Mikel Kennedy, a warm, friendly long haired young man who welcomed us and showed us around as he gave us a crash course in the Church of the Redeemer. We did not know it at the time but the Lord was drawing us to Houston to undergo some painful changes over the next six months there.