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.

Pecos - Ever the Peaceful Oasis

Rehearsing in the Bishop's Lodge at Pecos

After a month at Pecos, we settled into our life with the brethren. For me the rustic, contemplative life at Our Lady of Guadalupe was an oasis, a slice of heaven. Each morning I woke up in the privacy of my small log cabin room that had a single bed, a small table and chair and a dresser. I had decorated it with handmade lace, a shadow box, shells, stones, feathers, small icons from our journeys and other mementos. Every day walking to prayers from the cabin, I drank in the majestic beauty of the mountains, the circling eagles, the lofty white pines, the expansive wilderness all around me. Every evening, I returned to my haven of solitude to sit at my small table, read and write letters, journal in the Chronicles, or jot down poetry. I also enjoyed the good-natured joking and comradery shared with my sisters Sarah and Sister Mary (who had separate rooms in the cabin). We played cards together, laughing and talking about the day’s events. At bedtime, I lay gazing out my window at the blanket of stars, soaking up the strength and fortitude of those ancient hills, drawing from the steady patience of the trees, strong sentinels of the mountain’s slow struggle. Something about me needed that time for communion with nature. I blossomed in the desert wilderness. To me it was heaven and I never wanted to leave!

Seven Trees standing in the shadow of the majestic New Mexico mountains

Shipen wrote Canon West about how we were settling in at Pecos:

August 25, 1972

Dear Father West:

The progress of the family has been good, and its growth a result of our stay here at Pecos. It is a most refreshing stop, and one that carries with it an invitation to stay until spring. There is an immense feeling of charity here, and trust. It is unlike most other communities we have visited, but it is a monastic community, which has to differ from the secular communities in that there is an automatic connection to the contemplative (non-political) life. Yet it is tremendously active, and requires ministerial work from each member.

The ministry here is retreats. It is all Catholic Pentecostal. It seems that here most of the Christian energy is realized in lives spent putting Christ’s Love first and everything else second. It is not at all unlike the Trees Group in that it rests tomorrow entirely on faith and is given to organic growth. Interestingly enough the monks and fathers here have been heavily schooled.

To me it seems that the Symphony has entered a definite growth state in being somewhere after perseverance and before the confidence, which allows the Lord’s grace to come. The music is advancing with incredible rapidity, but there again we are stopped at the gate of technique. Both of these things together offer an important question: that is whether or not, at this point, we should receive musical as well as definite spiritual training. It seems that due to a lack of confidence, our performance suffers nervousness. None of us have had formal training in either music or theology.

The coming about of an organically growing tree is indeed a beautiful sight to watch, but if it staggers, there is such a thing as fertilizer. A bit of compost from the visible church wouldn’t hurt. That is if it doesn’t have chemical preservatives in it.

Ariels’ neck is better and it seems as if he has taken your counsel to repeat the Jesus Prayer. The only opposer is the youngest David whose head seems to be like a cork, it won’t sink into his heart.

If all goes well, we will plan a concert tour to the West Coast visiting the Episcopal church and the charismatic prayer groups in each major city. To do this we feel we will need proper amplification equipment as our voices are soft and meant for living rooms instead of auditoriums; but with the equipment all will go well. We expect it to cost us about $1,700.00. Please pray for these funds to be met.

Last week we sang parts of the new mass for some college age Baptists (400 of them) and received a very surprising standing ovation. Needless to say we were shocked and not ready for such an unprayerful response. We honestly don’t know where the Lord is taking the music, or what to expect it will accomplish. Right now it is next to theatre in its statement, but there is no blocking or dance due to our instruments confining us to sit on the floor. Thank you for your prayers,

Love in Christ, Shipen

On August 29th, Shipen followed up his letter with a phone call to Canon West, sharing again how our music had been blossoming. He presented our idea of touring with our new concert. He also asked for advice – should we leave or remain longer? Canon West replied that his intuition told him we should not come back to New York City at this time, and he agreed with our idea of touring and giving concerts but suggested we winter in Pecos.

Shipen filled him in on the lives of the brethren at Pecos and how we had found a door opening once again into a more contemplative life. Canon West was very pleased and suggested we take up the study of Gregory of Nyssa. With regard to our idea to buy amplification equipment, he approved of this idea as opposed to our taking voice lessons lest we tamper with “our sound.” He promised to come to Pecos for a visit and also said he would set up a confessor for us in Albuquerque.

Afterwards, we met with Father David and he seemed very happy and welcomed us saying he was certain everything could be arranged and offered us use of the Bishop’s lodge. He suggested the men (who had been sleeping in the bus all this time) could sleep in the bunk beds in the lodge and we could use the front room as a permanent rehearsal room. Super!

We discussed with Father David our desire to have more open dialogue with the Pecos brothers and sisters and also our plans for two concert tours. After everything was presented to him, he said he would bring it up at the next chapter meeting for a vote, and later the arrangements were approved.

The bishop’s lodge made rehearsals much easier as we could leave the instruments set up in the large living room rather than having to haul them back and forth to the bus. There was a large stone fireplace, wooden floors and wide timbered ceilings. The acoustics were wonderful!

With Canon West’s blessing, we put a down payment on a sound system and worked on the itinerary for our first official tour. Previously we had relied on word of mouth and often we literally knocked on church doors to attempt to arrange concerts. This was a haphazard method and not always successful. Using organizational skills learned from the Pecos brethren, we sent out letters and made phone calls to set up the tour more logically.

On August 30th, Max Dyer drove up from Redeemer to visit bringing his cello along with him. We had a delightful time talking, visiting and sharing music with him over the next few days. He met privately with Shipen at length, working through various issues. He later expressed that he went through a lot of healthy changes during his visit. I wrote in my journal that he shared he was able to give up resentments, judgments and hurt and that the Lord brought healing to some deep areas in his heart. I think he may have considered joining the Trees, though this was not discussed with the family. I truly enjoyed his visit. To me, Max was a warm, open soul who was always gracious and gentle.

On August 31, 1972 Shipen turned 30! That night we started a tradition that would last for years to come - a play. First we tried to surprise the birthday honoree. As usual, this included a special theme cake, a handmade birthday card with a poem someone had written and a celebration dinner. The birthday cakes were always a pun on some theme: The Huckleberry Thin Cake, the Crucicake, and the Iced Box cake. On this occasion, someone came up with the idea of also putting on a play. Things were hectic as we bustled around preparing dinner, rehearsing the play, making decorations, keeping Shipen away, and getting everything ready.

Max Dyer recalls:

I remember you decided you would “act out” being the people you had been back in your pre-Christian Loft days. I'm sure that acting like yourself is not a great stretch but I was amazed at the tantalizing spell that fell over you all as you passed an imaginary joint around the circle... I can remember David Lynch commented about Shipen, "I never saw him pass up a hit!" There was laughter and general agreement on this point. Then you took turns imitating people from back at the Redeemer and laughed a lot more.

The cool thing to me was that you guys really were such good friends and seemed to enjoy just hanging out together. You had this great capacity for entertaining yourselves.

We laid out a classic Symphony dinner of rice, black beans in miso sauce, fresh bread and salad, which we shared with the nuns and monks. We even set out chopsticks (another tradition – it saved on washing silverware!) Then we wheeled in a cake and sang Happy Birthday. While the brethren engaged Shipen in conversation, we scurried down to the bus to set up for our four-act play. When Shipen was escorted onto the bus, we ushered him into his seat of honor and the play began.

Act 1: The Loft. We sat around with cigarettes, writing in the trip diaries and being so insensitive as to drive Shipen (played by Steve) out of the Loft (the bus) and into a tree.

Act 2: We sang a soft chance chord and all of us reached our arms around Shipen (Steve) and read a poem that ended with “he fell out all converted.”

Act 3: An ecumenical cocktail reception party on the bus with Canon West (David Lynch) leading Madeline L’Engle (Shishonee) who had lost her glasses, Steve Rafalsky (David K), Sister Cleo (Ariel), Sister Miriam from Community of the Holy Spirit (Sarah), and Rodney Kirk (Steve) “who invited all these guests?” Later, the Bishop arrived wearing a big hat (Ariel) and a Pentecostal Maurine (Shishonee), a Redeemerite (David K), Dennis Paddy (Steve) and Henry Parker who canceled by phone (David L) and Naomi (Sarah). It was hilariously insane!

Act 4: The bus enclosure after 40 years with aged nuns and monks, some bitter, some tempered by age. The grand finale was all of us singing The Captain with ancient voices and then Happy Birthday.

It was a delightful success! Shipen loved it and we kicked back and laughed and laughed at ourselves. Then Shipen opened up his present – Jesus beads and a pouch to keep them in and read his card out loud. Finally, we celebrated with drinks and readings from the diaries, followed by prayers, confessions and then Compline.

Throughout the month of September we worked on new material in preparation for the upcoming tour and would perform it on Saturday’s, the final day of each weeklong retreat. On Sept. 2nd, we wrote and played The Birth Overture (from Isaiah 9) that ended with the sounds of a baby crying as Jesus is born into the world and the words “Christ is born.” After the break following the first set, a new song was created on the spot with improvisational singing of the words “Christ is Risen” which we then included in future concerts. Two other instrumental pieces were added: Joshua’s Bird Song with koto, cheng, flutes, gongs and percussive sounds and Old Testament Israel. Both created a cultural impression and atmosphere through textural layers of sound and sometimes voices. Other new songs were Bo Diddly and the Balinese monkey chant (“A miracle is the fig tree, once sour now sweet as candy…”). We listened carefully to a record of authentic Balinese music with a full gamelon orchestra to help us be as authentic as possible.

We also added in a guitar song I had written during a previous visit to Detroit, called There is Such a Love. We reordered the program and included some wild, upbeat banjo songs like The Captain and Our Father’s Beard where we would march around with David Lynch playing banjo, me on accordion, David Karasek playing a drum, and everyone else on bells and tambourines. These riotous songs were written at the suggestion of Goddard Lieberson, a good friend of Peter Rogers, who was always encouraging us to be less somber and more upbeat.

It took some time to get used to the new sound equipment. Learning how to sing without having to project one’s voice was quite a new experience. Shortly after we purchased it, we turned the volume all the way up on the mixing board and blew out the speakers! Oops. It took a lot of experimentation to learn how to use the new sound system.

September 8th brought some startling news! The Abbot of Bennet Lake met with the Pecos brethren for another chapter meeting and they were informed that Father David was being removed as prior and would be replaced by Father Alcuin from Bennet Lake. We never knew the details but it certainly seemed abrupt and heartless to me as we were used to days and weeks of hashing things out before any major change. This did not sit well with the monks and nuns and they remarked that it would take awhile before they would be able to swallow it. What seemed particularly callous was that Father David had to pack up and leave that afternoon! Shipen remarked on some of the details of the situation in his letter to Father West.

Dear Canon West:
Things are growing a bit more complicated here in uncomplicated and dry New Mexico. As is customary (I suppose) in the church, it is busy making sure there is no continuing city here. Today Father Abbot came from Bennet Lake to install a new Father Prior, and one quite the opposite from Father David. I could enumerate many reasons for the change in authority, and could be happy for the brothers, but instead I am tired and resigned, expecting nothing and the worst and accustomed to receiving a dusty plate, and dining in tears with Jesus.

Here is a review of the situation. Father Abbot is a dyed in the wool Roman Benedictine, i.e. contemplative, i.e. cloistered, i.e. no women, i.e. detached, i.e. in search of the fulfillment of the vows. He accepts his role with anxious coolness. He is not a Catholic Pentecostal.

We are trying our best to redesign our thinking to Plato through St. Gregory, and are succeeding in regaining the desire to practice virtue. Since there are no books on St. Gregory of Nyssa in the monastery’s library, we found one in Santa Fee, and read it together each morning. It is an admirable study, but can you sense what will happen when and if we begin formal dialogue (a request of ours) with Father David who is now giving classes each morning on Watchman Nee’s The Release of the Spirit? Where are the grounds going to meet? Sanctification through community, or through sacrifice? Purification by rubbing against relationships or through discipline of thought or action. Salvation by obedience or by braving the independent? Remember there are women present in both ours and their community.

I had a discussion today with a Pentecostal monk who questioned the Lord’s return in the flesh and is convinced that Mary and Joseph slept together to get Jesus.

I was talking to a nun the other day who was praying for her mother superior, and Bishop, to receive the Baptism of the Spirit.

I was upset because the Pope didn’t open the secret letter from our Lady of Fatima in 1960, and over the implications of a tri Kiyac diety in the Father the Mother and the son. King and queen forever, but not married. (No human counterpart to draw from).

After two years of not smoking I very calmly walked down to the river, lit a cigarette and smoked it, and reflected somewhat upon Zion.

Aside from this particular situation the family is well and terribly thankful for the music.

Yours in Christ, Shipen

[I later learned that when Canon West received this letter he was greatly concerned that we might fall into the mistaken belief that there was no divine birth and resurrection, that Jesus did not return after his death. In fact, it was a year later that he told us how very worried he had been that we might be wrongly influenced by this notion. He then proceeded to explain the resurrection and other church dogma in great detail to us so there would be no lingering doubts!)
Another change came on September 11th when we made a formal commitment to the monastery for six months. The monks and nuns laid hands on us asking the Lord to bless our time with them and then we laid hands on them, asking the Lord to bless their upcoming vacation to the Grand Canyon. The next day, as the hooked up their trailer and started to pull away, they experienced one of the annoying set backs that often plagued our bus – the brakes on the trailer wouldn’t work! So off they drove to Albuquerque to get them fixed.

The new Abbot moved in and immediately instituted changes to tighten up the rules at the monastery. Signs were installed marking the separate living quarters for men and women. The door to the courtyard had a new sign in bold black letters, “Monastic Enclosure”. The monks and nuns were instructed to wear habits.

Shipen explained some of the changes and struggles to adapt in his letter to Canon West on September 18, 1972:

Dear Father West:

Things have been going rather well in the family, and there have been many changes since the last letter. I will enumerate.

First we have just had a new prior installed here. The abbot came from Bennet Lake last week and announced that he was releasing Father David from his duties and replacing him with Father Alcuin, a man quite the opposite from Father David, being conservative, quiet, dutiful, and obedient, but somehow also weak and ineffectual. The community took it all rather well but it will mean some status changes in regard to the women and those under commitment without life professions in mind. Cloister is to be re-established and habits, and separate eating for the monks, and other traditional schemes for monastic life. The Pentecostal monks and fathers are trying hard to abide the wishes of the new prior due to their hopes for independence within the year; but it is difficult for them, and especially for the women who reject their position of being barred from the cloister where they once had free run, or cooking with the monks where they once had free run. The weight of the mater hasn’t struck yet as the monks went on vacation three days after installation, and they won’t be back until Wednesday of this week. We have had a good opportunity to get to know father Alcuin since we are the only ones at the monastery while the monks are gone.

Second, we had talked to Fr. David about staying the winter and had to have the same talk with Fr. Alcuin whose concern was how we could be here officially, and finally, after a run through the canon-course, he decided that we could stay as a “house of prayer” and with that we made a formal commitment before him and all the brothers, with the laying on of hands, to stay until March pending any changes in the thinking of Father Abbot in Bennet Lake concerning our status, or pending any orders from you. And so the Lord is good – the land is spectacularly beautiful, there is a unique cultural atmosphere, we have a small house that we can call home, all the good food we can eat, heat, rivers, mountains, changing faces every weekend to hear our presentation, time and space to work on the music, work for our hands and minds, freedom to experiment, to be a part of one inter-community relating to one another inter-communally, the daily office, and the eucharist, and we have permission to take two rather extensive concert tours during the winter, the first starting in less than two weeks. There are so many blessings that I am overwhelmed. Still, and in spite of this, the family has its times of gross thanklessness and seemingly hopeless personality wars; but the monastery has afforded us time to spread away from each other more than before, letting the personal dignity of each grow by itself to an extent.

I am glad to report also that we are the proud owners of a $2,500.00 Pevey public address system that is wreaking havoc with our voices and instruments due to its sensitivity, and we are finding it necessary to learn how to sing and play all over again. This is a bit depressing. The other disturbing thing is that the amplifier blew up Friday much to our amazement, and it had to be sent back to Mississippi for repairs. We all wonder if we should go back to dependence upon feeble technology or not. One has the feeling after resting in the arms of the Lord, that any other means of support is like walking on a tight rope, since being at the mercy of mortal minds has its own shattering effects – especially when amplifiers blow and things like that.

We are very much enjoying our study of St. Gregory of Nyssa. We have found only one book in this whole area however, and we are resorting to reading it aloud to the family and then discussing it. It is bringing us to a relaxed familiarity with our past in the search for virtue and in that sense it is very healing; however I must say that there is some friction between us and the monks since they are fervently studying Watchman Nee “The Spiritual Man”, and somewhat frown upon the study of ancient Platonic thought; but I explained it as a necessary healing for us who rejected our minds at the advent of our Christianity. At any rate I love it and so do my brothers and sisters.

We are very much looking forward to your coming to Santa Fe this winter and hope we can spend enough time together to acclimate ourselves with each other. I believe there will be a time when we may be sent formally by the Cathedral to minister in music, Goddard Liebeson (Vice President of CBS) saying there are things for us to do in New York; but surely not until we are ready, and that’s what we hope to hear from you after we have had time together.

The music and technique continues to expand, and all is well. Please pray for David Karasek, his growth is torturously slow and I’m not exactly sure where he’s heading.

We thank the Lord each day for you all and remain faithfully, by God’s grace, yours in Christ. Shipen

After weeks of practice, it was time to nail down final preparations for our first musical tour. In Santa Fe, we purchased new costumes made of unbleached muslin and Indian print. David Lynch and Shipen chose muslin overalls and Sarah and I sewed full-length muslin skirts with dark red sashes to wear around our waists. Steve, David K. and David L. chose loose-fitting muslin pants with Indian print shirts. Sarah and I broke with our barefoot tradition and purchased Indian style leather sandals.

On September 26th we set off on our first official tour, a trip that would last five weeks until November 3rd. We loaded up the bus with provisions from the monastery’s pantry, chopped wood for the stove and sorted through what we would need to take with us. Of course, we brought along our two cats, Maurice and Buki. After a special “pilgrimage mass” with Father Gregory officiating we were off!