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.

Spring Floods

Shishonee and family 1961

I realize now that for me, this overwhelming need to keep our “family” together grew from my experiences as a child when I did whatever I could to keep my parents together. They almost divorced when I was about ten years old and it was a defining moment in my life. Now it felt like it had happened again and I felt sad and depressed. Gazing out the bus window as we drove home, my thoughts drifted back to that night so many years ago…

It was a Saturday night when I was about nine years old. We’d just finished dinner when my mother and father called us all into the living room. All five of us (ages 9, 8, 7, 5 and 4) came and sat quietly on the couch, sensing something big was up. My mother explained that she and my father were having problems “getting along” and that they had decided they were going to get a divorce. With a tired and defeated tone she told us it would be better for all of us because “your Mom and Dad just don’t like each other much anymore.” Then she said, “Each of you will have to decide who you want to live with, your father or me.” I was shell-shocked and we all sat there in stunned silence. My little brothers started to sniffle and cry. My mind screamed, “No, this can’t be happening! It’s a mistake!”

Throughout that night I wrestled with the dilemma of who I should live with and who would I have to leave? My father? My mother? As I lay in bed, I kept weighing this back and forth, trying to imagine which was the better choice – I loved them both! Then it dawned on me that our family might be split up! As the horror of this scenario unfolded in my young mind, I felt sick at heart, as if I had been punched in the gut. This just could not be! Finally, I determined it was up to me to do something. That Sunday morning after church I gathered my brothers and sister together in our music room and shut the door. I remember all of us sitting on the scratchy rattan rug next to the piano as I explained to them that we just had to do something, we couldn’t let this happen. We sat in a little circle and prayed out loud for my parents, asking them to love each other again and for God to fix things up. Then I picked out passages from our Sunday School bibles for each of us to read. We practiced these for a while until we decided we were ready. I lined my sister and three little brothers up along the wall with their Children’s Bibles open in their hands and called my Mom and Dad into the room. Each of us recited a brief verse to them, then we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer together. As my Mom and Dad sat with tears streaming down their faces, I had my little brother Ben say a prayer he had practiced until he got it right, “God, please don’t let Mommy and Daddy get divorced, help them love each other again.” My mother came over and hugged us and both my Mom and Dad agreed that they would try harder to make it work out. (They didn't divorce until many years later when I was 24). This experience forged in me the unconscious need to struggle to heal others differences and the unwavering desire to keep our family unit together.

As we drove along, I sat watching the blocks of houses barely outlined against the night sky, each with their own stories hidden within. It wasn’t until I went through years of therapy that I realized how powerfully my parent’s divorce had shaped my life. Sadly I knew this time there was nothing that could be done.

On Tuesday night, April 10th, 1972 Shipen called for a final decision. He issued an ultimatum - either come to the Symphony prayer meeting and rehearsal or go to the Tuesday night Redeemer teaching. If you stayed, you would be with the Symphony and if you left, you would be choosing Redeemer. I watched with a heavy heart as Stephanie, Roger, Claudia, Randy and Naomi stood up and left.

The next day, the elders met and it was decided that Stephanie would move into the Farra household and Randy and Naomi would move into the Neal household. Roger and Claudia had decided to officially join Redeemer and moved in with the Schiffmayers. Paul was still uncertain so he decided to stay with us for the time being. Feeling battered and scarred, it was a very emotional and painful time for all of us. Though we all prayed for healing, it would be a long time before our wounds would heal.

About a week later, we had a delightful visit from Father Anthony from Three Rivers Abbey. We were able to talk at length about our break up and everything that had transpired since we left Three Rivers. It was refreshing to talk with an outsider who really understood what we had been going through and who had very sound, affirming and loving words of encouragement for us. We played him our new songs and he joined us for Compline. He seemed pleased that we still retained some trappings of the contemplative life.

Somehow the elders gave their approval for our previously thwarted trip to Fort Worth, Texas so we left for the weekend to work on the bus and visit the home of the Cavannars. Graciously the couple took us in and helped us repaint the bus, which meant taping over the windows and lights, sanding it down, washing it and then spray painting the entire surface. Shipen remarked that it was a symbolic change in that now God’s word would be inside the bus since it was growing inside each of us. After the surface was primed, David Karasek created a beautiful mural of trees and leaves on both sides of the bus.

David K. painting a mural on the bus

On May 2, 1972 we celebrated our first Anniversary Day. Exactly one year before, we had left New York City as the Symphony of Souls in Christ, a long-haired, newly converted band of hippies ready to face the world. So much had changed in one year! We began by celebrating communion using our traditional Trees Liturgy. Then it was time for a classic Symphony breakfast Ariel had made - homemade whole wheat bread, oatmeal with honey and steaming hot coffee. We read from selected entries in my journal (that I'd nicknamed “The Chronicle”) - and the entire day was filled with festivity and celebration. We broke out tequila with dinner, followed by a ceremonial burning of a $1.00 bill torn into four pieces to represent the $400 that had burned up in the potbellied stove our first week out. There were readings from Flower A. Newhouse’s books, The Aquarian Gospel and other “heretical” books from the early days. Roger and Claudia and later Stephanie dropped by and together re reminisced, our happiness tinged with nostalgia and sadness. A quietness settled over us as we listened to readings from all those days and all those places, listening to the judgments, the mistakes and the Lord’s victories. Our anniversary ended with a performance of two new songs, I Wander and Jesus He Knows and then Compline. It had been quite a pilgrimage.

I Wander (song by Shishonee)

I wander through the valleys
Searching for Him whom I love
As he knocked, my hand upon the lock.
Too long did I wait.
The last word before he left was,
“Rise up my love, come away.”
In darkness, outside the city gate,
They found me walking there…
And stripped and whipped and beat me
Till I was naked and bare.

Ye daughters of Jerusalem
Wake not my love till He please.
If you see Him passing by,
Tell Him I am sick with love, with love.
He found me in the wilderness
He found me in the wilderness
He found me in the wilderness
And gathered me up unto His breast.
Spring floods
Shall never drown our love,
For love is strong as death.

Make haste, my beloved
Be thou as a young stag
Upon the mountains of spices
Upon the mountains of spices
Upon the mountains of spices
Upon the mountains of spices.

The final two months at Redeemer we grew restless, eager to continue on our journey to minister and spread God’s word through musical/theatrical/artistic presentations. The pressure and tension between our two communities abated somewhat, replaced by a growing warmth and love now that we had reached a mutual agreement about our role at Redeemer.

Throughout May and June, Mikel Kennedy and others often came to visit. I enjoyed the influx of new friends and shared music and ideas. It was a delightful, productive period with the time and space to create new music, experiment, relax and enjoy the kind of fluid, connected experience that came with open jam sessions. They were wonderful journeys into new sounds and stories, reminiscent of the early Loft musical sessions that Shipen dubbed the Sunday Sound and Story sessions.