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.

Church of the Redeemer: Jesus He Knows Exactly Why Indigo Can Cause a Painter to Cry

The Trees and friends from Church of the Redeemer

Our stay at the Church of the Redeemer brought difficult lessons and tested the strength of our fragile family bonds. By the time we left, we lost almost half our members and our family was nearly pulled apart and destroyed. Why? Was it due to the powerful influence of Redeemer’s leadership and lifestyle, or was it because of months of constant internal bickering and personality warfare. Certainly we had lessons to learn about submission and authority! Maybe it was the Lord who drew us to Texas to gently tease away those who were being called to a different path. For Roger and Claudia who had a baby on the way, Redeemer seemed a more realistic choice than traipsing around living our gypsy lifestyle. Whatever the reasons, by the time we left, five members of our community would decide to stay at the Church of the Redeemer.

We arrived at Redeemer just four days before Christmas. Our early days there began innocently enough with an invitation to stay at North Main House, one of the many ministering households within the Church of the Redeemer. Redeemer consisted of satellite “families” that typically included at least one married couple and various single people that lived together in one house. Each household had an elder (usually married) who exercised leadership and authority over the household. These elders were directly under the leadership of other elders of the church and ultimately the head of Redeemer was the founder, Graham Pulkingham. The head of our household, North Main, was Jon Wilkes (who was married to Sylvia), a tall, lanky, friendly and gracious man who welcomed us almost immediately.

Redeemer was a charismatic community with a variety of ministries, including a coffee house ministry that featured the Keyhole singing group, and a network of prayer, Bible study meetings and ongoing Christian worship and study that threaded all the different households together. During the day, members of each house either held outside jobs or worked at the church’s various ministries or at the Way In coffeehouse. Every evening, there were Bible studies and evening worship services held at the church in addition to the big Sunday service. There was also a daily informal Eucharist at noon for all who could attend. Each month we were there, there was a “Weekend of Renewal” teaching conference. So much was happening at Redeemer and almost immediately it seemed we were innundated with powerful waves of conflicting interests and personalities vying for control of our little family. Not wanting to lose our identity, we held our own daily services in keeping with our traditions including prayer in the morning and Compline in the evenings before bed.

Graham Pulkingham

The head of Redeemer was Graham Pulkingham, a balding, heavy set man with intense eyes and a powerful, no-nonsense manner. He had been called to Redeemer in 1963 and transformed what had been a run down inner city church located on the east side of Houston into a dynamic, charismatic community. Pulkingham was the guiding force behind the community, the man who made the major decisions on matters of authority or doctrine at the church, at least while we were there. He was an imposing figure, a curious blend of the earthly and the divine – a man who was much admired and respected at Redeemer. Under his leadership was a small group of elders and these men formed the nucleus of Redeemer’s leadership.

We parked the bus outside North Main house and settled into shared community life there. The house was a two story house with huge windows that overlooked a noisy, railroad-shipping yard. The garage was a separate structure that had been converted into a Christian coffee house called Way In. The area had become a local gathering place for disenfranchised youth and hippies. This was not lost on the leaders at Redeemer, who had converted the garage into a coffeehouse, a magnet for the lingering lost. This building would double as our sleeping quarters for the first two months of our stay.

David Pulkingham and Mike Kennedy at Way In Coffeehouse

On our first few days at Redeemer we met with two elders, Jeff Shiffmayer and Jerry Barker to discuss our purpose and goals for being at Redeemer. They shared that they had a vision of us in a house together there. Shipen countered that it was important to lift everything up to the Lord, letting him kill everything inside that fights back or is destructive, and being truly poor in spirit without desiring anything. The meeting ended with a prayer that God provide us with our own house if it was what the Lord wanted.

Meanwhile at the mid day communion, I had quite a unique experience. I was doubled over with extremely painful cramps (something I had suffered with every month for over a year). I sat inside the church in agony, sweating and gritting my teeth during prayers. Jeff Schiffmayer quietly walked over and laid hands on me. Immediately a wave of peace surged through me and I was completely healed of the pain that had been unbearable seconds before. I had always been skeptical of healers, but I couldn't deny what I had experienced myself. Praise God!

On Christmas eve, all of us in the North Main household dressed in our Sunday best and gathered for a festive dinner of turkey, cranberries, stuffing and all kinds of delicious food. Then it was time to exchange gifts. Shipen, Ariel, David K and David L had made a gift for the household - a handmade Plexiglas cross with 12 different stones glued on representing the 12 foundation stones of the city of Jerusalem. Then we piled onto the bus and drove over to the church for a beautiful candlelight service at Redeemer. Afterwards, most of North Main house crowded onto the bus for the ride home, with all of us singing Christmas carols as we wended our way through the city streets. Finally, at 2:00 a.m. there was a Christmas party back at North Main.

Later in the week, in the middle of a music rehearsal in the coffee house, Jerry Barker came by to once again discuss our position and role at Redeemer. We explained that we had not come to infiltrate or preach other doctrines. We felt called by God to minister through our music and that the Lord was indicating we should have a house there. I shared a recent prophecy I had received, “My walls will be your salvation.” Then we prayed with Jerry and we women played and sang the song I had written called Daughters of Jerusalem. When we had finished the song, Jerry left but there were other people who had slipped into the coffeehouse, so we continued playing more of our music for them before we left for dinner.

Two days after Christmas, as we were eating lunch with everyone at North Main, a young Redeemerite named Randy Ostertag quietly walked into the room and asked to become a part of the Symphony of Souls. Immediately we welcomed him in to our small family. This brought the Symphony to 10 members and our combined household up to 29 members. Even as Randy was eager to join us, David Karasek once again insisted he was ready to leave. He spoke with Jerry Barker about it but Jerry convinced him that he should remain with us, at least for a little while longer. Meanwhile, pressures to submit to Redeemer’s authority were mounting all around us. It came through teachings and sermons with messages such as respect and revere those who are in a position of higher authority than yourself, don’t fear your elders and offer respect and obedience to them. Shipen was increasingly worried about what was happening to us. He met with the elders of North Main, Jon and Sylvia Wilkes and Nancy for what turned out to be five hours! The issue of submission was to be a recurrent admonition to us.

A dear friend and former Redeemer member Max Dyer recalls what our arrival meant from his perspective:

"Although it certainly wasn't apparent at the time, I think a lot of the friction between the Symphony of Souls and the Redeemer probably came from the
general contrast of their "vocations.” The Symphony had a sophisticated New
York-based artistic lifestyle with a strong contemplative dimension. Redeemer,
on the other hand, was a middle-class charismatic church with a family lifestyle
so a lot of the life and worship was centered around the children. It was pretty
unsophisticated and simple and, because it was a church, was more open to the
world at large.

Roger and Claudia, who were expecting a baby, found the family centered households of Redeemer to be a welcome change, as did Naomi and Stephanie who seemed drawn to marriage and a family-oriented lifestyle. Others in the group had an understandable reluctance to see their own close-knit community disbanding!

The Symphony did have a powerful influence on the Redeemer. For many people, including me, this traveling band of mystical gypsies was quietly mind-blowing with their eclectic spirituality and their exotic musical influences. Their intense spirit of abandon in worship was phenomenal and I know they certainly inspired and deepened Redeemer's worship life as a whole. Still, the Redeemer ethos had a wide stripe of blue collar Americana and unfortunately, a prevailing anti-artistic bias.

I, who was a cellist studying music at the university, felt the effects of this prejudice and perhaps that's why the Symphony represented such a liberation of my spirit. From them, I caught a glimpse of my own artistic vocation before God.

But certainly not everybody was as smitten as I was! The Redeemer elders were reluctant to grant a sanctioned ministry to a group within their church who
had a strong sense of their own identity and a cagey resistance to submission."
[end of excerpt]

Former Redeemerite Jeff Schiffmayer comments:
"I wish now that we had had the grace to accept them for exactly who they were. None of us had ever seen such a close intimate community before! And we Redeemer elders fell into a kind of competition with them. The most frustrating matter was that we really wanted to free some of their members to do whatever they wanted with their lives."

December 30th, we met in the bus to discuss whether or not we should stay together or split apart into separate households. David Karasek expressed his discontent, questioning whether he should remain or leave. I was sad and disappointed when over half of our family said they were unhappy and wanted to leave and get a fresh start. It left me feeling deeply distressed, praying for healing and for God to pull us back together. Curiously, at the time, I could not accept that God might actually have a different calling, a different purpose for Naomi, Stephanie, Claudia, Roger, David Karasek or Paul. It did not occur to me that maybe they were just fed up with the constant wrangling and bickering. I felt so strongly that God had called each of us to our community, that I believed they were just being stubborn and rebellious.

January 8th was a busy day with all of us focused on the evening presentations at the Way In coffeehouse ministry. After a hectic dinner and last minute preparations, we met with the Keyhole singing group and drama group in the coffeehouse. As others served the Eucharist, we tuned and warmed up our voices. Before we could go on, Naomi confessed she just didn’t feel like singing or doing anything at all. Great. Paul chimed in saying he felt like an empty shell without love, so how could he go out on stage and sing a lie? Someone else shared they felt nervousness and fearful. After a few minutes we agreed we needed to lay aside our feelings and perform anyway. We quickly changed into our pastel colored robes and as we walked out, we sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Looking out into the audience, I was surprised and delighted to see Roger and Claudia who had just flown back into town. We sang seven songs that segwayed into other readings, music and drama. Afterwards, we chatted with Roger and Claudia, and helped clean up. The only drawback to sleeping in the coffeehouse was the fact we had to wait till all the patrons dispersed before we could settle down to bed. That night bedtime was 1:30 a.m.

That was one of only a few performances we gave at Redeemer. I recall Graham Pulkingham admonishing me to "hang up my harp" and thinking this didn't seem right. I listened and nodded my head, keeping my reservations to myself, agreeing to at least pray about it.

Instead of accepting our ministry of music, the elders quickly decided that we should work as maintenance workings doing house cleaning and cooking for large events. This meant cleaning everything from dirty houses to the church facilities, mopping, scrubbing, washing curtains and linens, cooking, setting up for conferences, etc. In addition, we were also assigned the task of ferrying people to and from church for services or for other events on our bus. Sadly, though Shipen requested time and again for us to be able perform our music for the huge church services, this was never allowed. I remember listening to Max Dyer on cello or Charles High on piano at the services and thinking we could share so much with them if they would allow us to play. No go.

The first two or so weeks, we worked during the day, then met at one household or another for dinner, prayers and intense discussion and scripture readings. It seemed to me that almost every night there was some kind of long, involved intercession or conferring, counseling or discussion going on. I wondered if anyone ever just kicked back and watched TV or read a book?

After only two weeks at Redeemer, our community was being pulled apart. Paul Greiner and David Karasek wanted desperately to join the Redeemer community and move to another house. Naomi and Stephanie also agonized about leaving. I saw all this as a result of unrelenting outside pressure and influence. I had hoped we would find a nurturing, supportive environment at Redeemer yet my perception was that we were being bombarded with demands to submit, give up our musical ministry, and essentially be broken up and absorbed into Redeemer. I found it deeply upsetting. Why didn't the others see what was happening to them? We had been through this before back when prophets entered the Loft and insisted we follow them and at many other places we’d visited when we were expected to give up our identity and views and conform to their way. To me Redeemer was attacking the very fiber of our family bonds and I prayed earnestly that our members wouldn’t be enticed away by the Redeemer siren song! Sadly, even though we averted another crisis after several lengthy discussions and everyone decided to remain “on the bus”, it was a harbinger of things to come.

January 16th pressures at North Main reached a boiling point. That evening, Jon Wilkes called a meeting of North Main and our community. For the next four hours, inner antagonisms came bubbling and boiling up to the surface like seething liquid in a hot caldron. At one point we were talking about dress and modesty and Shipen, in his typical long-winded fashion, was going on and on. (Something that drove me nuts but I tried to bite my tongue and put up with it). Suddenly one of the household members Jane screamed, “Just shut up, damn it, shut up! You really make me angry!” This opened up the floodgates and soon everyone jumped into the fray spewing forth their anger and annoyances with one another. Eventually, after all the pent up emotions were voiced, things grew quiet and we prayed together for healing. Amazingly, a peace settled over the room and I felt drawn into a place of healing that only God's grace could provide. Finally, Jon suggested that maybe now it was time for the Symphony to cease being just guests and that we should be official members of the household, joined together as one united family. We agreed.

Two days later there was a new wrinkle. Redeemer was a fairly mainstream blue collar, working class church and as such was relatively homophobic. There were no gay households or openly gay members. The church was largely made up of heterosexual individuals and families and if there were any homosexuals, it was not openly accepted and they were immediately dealt with by the elders. It all began when Ariel met privately with Jeff Cockran, one of the elders. Afterwards, during our Eucharist with North Main, Ariel confessed to the “sin” of being a homosexual and asked for absolution. I recall thinking that it was strange and feeling confused about his confession. I wondered, why was being gay suddenly a sin? What was wrong with being a homosexual? Had he been pressured into this or what was going on?

A week later while having dinner at Roger and Claudia’s, Shipen told us of his own encounter where he’d been "laid flat". He was called before a council of Redeemer elders where he was accused of being gay. He explained that it felt like he was on trial. To me it seemed like a scene from the Roman Inquisition as Shipen described how he knelt before the group while being interrogated and grilled about his “homosexual tendencies”. He admitted to being a “sinner” (aren't we all?) and eventually he was excused after Father Graham said something to the effect that we are not responsible for our temptations to sin, just for how we behave in response to those temptations.
Elder Jon Wilkes, who was there, remarks on this unusual set of events:

"Living together under crowded conditions is difficult at best. This situation quickly became difficult for all the usual interpersonal reasons - compounded in my mind by the growing intuition that the Symphony's leader, Shipen, was not as removed from homosexuality as one might hope. (How I intuited this I don't know.) I became upset enough about it to inform Graham Pulkingham. Graham convened a meeting of senior leaders at Redeemer and invited both Shipen and me to attend - to discuss the situation.
Shipen sat on the Rectory living room floor, half kneeling, in a posture reminiscent of a martyr awaiting execution. He admitted to the group assembled that he did have homosexual desires, temptations. Graham's judgment, with which the meeting ended, was that a person was not responsible for his temptations to sin - only for his overt behavior. The corollary was that none of us (read me, the complainant) should go around the community judging others for their "aura," the secondary expressions of their sexual proclivities.

This mild rebuke and teaching were Solomonic to me. My old denomination taught a fundamentalist viewpoint, which was extremely intolerant. Graham's way of perceiving the varieties of humanity was something beautiful - generous to others and (since I knew my own weaknesses) a great reassurance to me. Persons in some conservative Evangelical traditions suffer profound fears of rejection by God on technical, capricious grounds. You know, Moses loses his temper once and is forbidden to enter the Promised Land. "Narrow is the road...and few there be who find it..., etc." In the theology of early years at Redeemer the emphasis was on the Psalm, which reassures us that the Lord remembers we are but dust."  [end of excerpt]

I viewed this as one more attack on Shipen’s leadership and authority and as a group the Symphony immediately rallied around Shipen and Ariel. We had always accepted one another’s differences and in our close knit family sexual orientation was just another aspect of our uniqueness in the eyes of God. Coupled with the tensions and interpersonal difficulties at North Main, things were getting increasingly uncomfortable.