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.

Tempest Tossed: To Submit or Not?

Stephen Gambill

Into this growing tempest walked a surprise visitor. On January 23, 1972 we attended the 11:00 worship service. One by one we walked up, took communion, then returned to our pew. Finally Shipen went up and knelt down at the railing waiting for his turn to take communion. To our total surprise, Stephen Gambill walked up and knelt down beside him. How terrific to see him, what a delight! After nine months of letters and phone calls back and forth to New York City, finally he had come back into our lives. After the service, we circled around him, laughing and hugging, peppering him with questions. Then we clambered on the bus and returned to North Main House where all of 13 of us, including Roger and Claudia, celebrated with a reunion picnic on the lawn.

Stephen arrived at a turning point in our relationship with Church of the Redeemer. It began with a weeklong conference entitled “The Charismatic Institute of Christian Health.” This featured speakers including Dr. Jim Stringham, Rev. Herman Riffel, Michael and Jeanne Harper and Father Graham Pulkingham. We worked frantically behind the scenes with our friend Doy (who we worked with) setting up tables, preparing meals and coffee hour, and cleaning up for the 300 people attending the conference.

During the conference, our doubts and concerns about “psychological humanism” continued to grow. One of the presenters, Dr. Stringham, was a Christian psychiatrist who spoke on broken relationships and their healing. He explained that bitterness and resentment is like a cancer in one’s body that affects your relationship with others and can often have physical effects such as stomach ulcers, high blood pressure or coronary disease. He then spoke of the psychological signs and symptoms, which include depression, anxiety, obsessive/compulsive behavior, persecution complexes or marital problems. He also spoke about the benefits of psychoanalysis to heal bitterness and resentment. This might make perfect sense today but in 1971 to our distrusting ears it seemed like heresy, at least to Shipen and to me.

One of the biggest ongoing disagreements we had with some of the teachings at Redeemer (and incidentally with Plowcreek Farm) was in the area of psychology. Shipen became increasingly alarmed by the teachings on psychology and how it meshed with Christianity. In fact, he refused to attend the sessions, preferring to stay back to “intercede” for Redeemer and to pray. At the time, I was convinced that what was being taught was a grave distortion of God’s truth. [Stephanie kept detailed notes from the lectures, which I recently poured over, trying to understand why I had such a deep distrust of psychology. In retrospect, examining the notes from the seminars and lectures now (over 35 years later), it makes perfect sense to me. Having gone through ten years of psychotherapy with an excellent therapist, I re-read these notes and teachings in a completely different light. I only wish I could go back and explain it to that youthful, naive me who so easily dismissed it as deceptive teaching and distorted doctrine.] At the time, it seemed to me as if a veil had fallen over the eyes of all the participants. In our typical over-vigilant, judgmental manner, we remained skeptical and deeply concerned. Let me clarify – most of us remained skeptical. I will speak for myself and say that at that point I firmly believed this was heretical teaching and no one (except probably Shipen) could tell me otherwise.

On Friday evening we held one of our special “are you with us or not” type of meetings. Shipen led off with his fears about this doctrine of “humanistic psychology” and his discontent with what was being taught. After lengthy discussion, we each reaffirmed our commitment to being in the Symphony.

Meanwhile, Shipen met with Jeff and Graham Pulkingham - the upshot of which was that Graham chided Shipen to lead by example rather than by evangelizing. Graham explained that the more we tried to teach and evangelize, the more our light would fade out. In other words, he felt our mission was to quietly listen, learn and live our faith rather than preach it. He also said it was the Lord who wanted us to be there and that we should submit to Redeemer. Oh really?
I was not convinced!

Reluctantly, Shipen agreed to accept Graham’s directive to be there in a ministry of intercession. Often, as I mulled things over late at night and prayed, I wondered exactly what God wanted our role to be at Redeemer. I felt we had talents, gifts, a musical ministry that was not being valued or recognized. Sitting quietly and praying did not seem like much of a mission to me. Why had God given us such incredible music during the Loft days? Why would God suddenly change his mind and want me to loosen the strings of my harp? Was this really God’s will? I turned this over to the Lord in my prayers over the following weeks.

On Sunday, Shipen reached his own epiphany regarding his relationship to Canon West. He explained that he finally realized that Canon West had, all along, been our spiritual elder, guiding and praying for us, yet standing quietly on the sidelines, waiting for us to receive God’s word on this too. Faced with a choice between submission to the authority of Graham or submission to Canon West, Shipen said he knew our first loyalty and calling was to Father West. This rang true to me whereas Graham’s words did not.

On February 2nd, Shipen called all thirteen members of the Symphony of Souls together to discuss our future at Redeemer and our future together as a community. Our group then consisted of: Shipen, Ariel, Stephen, David K., David L., Paul, Stephanie, Claudia, Roger, "Naomi", Shishonee, "Sarah", and Randy (new since Redeemer). We taped the meeting and listening to it again recently revealed several key features of our life together. First, we argued and disagreed, but there was a deep undercurrent of love evident in our conversations! Second, decisions were turned over to God and it was our conviction that the Lord would guide us into doing what was right. Finally, we used honest, open debate to work through our differences.

We opened with prayer and a reading from scripture. Then Shipen kicked off the discussion with the issue of submission, obedience and whose spiritual authority we should be under, Father West or Father Pulkingham? Even though we disagreed, it was a friendly, loving discussion. Paul voiced his concern with obeying an elder blindly and how he would have difficulty following a directive or doctrine he disagreed with. Roger spoke of his growing conviction that Jeff Schiffmayer was being raised up for a special ministry at Redeemer and Roger felt called to support Jeff. Shipen spoke of his new realization that Canon West was (and always had been) our spiritual authority figure. Then he pointed out that he had always sought God’s guidance before presenting a directive. He explained he could just demand that we submit to him as our elder and obey his command to return to New York City in typical Redeemer fashion but he preferred to wait for the Lord to confirm it in each of us instead.

Throughout the discussion there was a friendly comradery as we bantered back and forth, respectfully and with humor, seeking a consensus. As I listened to those long silent voices, they echoe across the years with the love and care we had for each other and our deep desire to do what was right before God...

Shipen: The thing which I think we should discuss tonight frankly, honestly and
openly is the idea of submission to authority and how it could possible relate
to submission to power. We’ve talked about our elders, but we haven’t talked
about whether or not God was speaking to us in terms of actually committing
ourselves into the hands of another leader; an elder in the church. Actually
plugging into the body of Christ, and thereby gaining the direct support and
leadership abilities of the elders of the church…I was wondering if anybody has
any ideas about it…

Ariel: I was thinking of every place we have been to from the monasteries to Koinania and everyone has been submitted in the way we’ve been speaking of. Sr. Miriam is vowed to obey the mother superior, Mother Ruth who is their shepherd on earth; they are vowed in marriage to Jesus. The monks are the same way.

Shipen: The idea we are discussing is an idea of obedience; and the spirit of obedience …What it comes down to, in terms of personal taste is that we’re New Yorkers and used to a certain kind of life and these people are Houstonians. They are not geared to monastic life and not about to be, no matter what Jeff says in terms of obedience; they are not going to call 300 people to sit in that church all day.

Stephanie: I also don’t think we can deny what the Lord has done in our short heritage. I don’t think we can deny the ministry to us by Canon West, St. John’s, Madeline, Sister Miriam, and the convent. What they have given to us, what they have laid down for us is just incredible…

Ariel:…most of us had never seen Canon West, he had never spoken to us, and for many of us he never has; I think he said hello to me once, and I shook his hand but, that is the most mysterious and holy thing…which was Canon West in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine blessing us with the Lord’s holiness because that was the first time I ever felt the spirit of Jesus Christ and it was ministered by a person and I didn’t have a thought for…
Claudia: …As you were saying we’re all New Yorkers and we can’t deny that past, it is with us. It makes us where people can’t understand us; we just feel like we’re in a different world when we’re in Houston, Texas.

Shipen: Isn’t it strange how the different parts of the body do different things? I feel the strongest support in prayer from Gethsemani….I feel totally edified by Gethsemani. It’s really something, at St. Gregory’s a greater ability for creative talent and here there is a greater ability to become a maintenance man…


And personal struggle:

Paul: You don’t have to agree with your spirit; that’s what I am saying. I love Graham, I really do Shipen, he can say anything to me and I would do it. But I will not preach something I don’t have in my spirit, but I still love him. And what I
read yesterday morning, Paul and Barnabus, they split up because they didn’t
agree; they were still of the Lord.

Shipen: I agree with you. But I think, Paul, what the Lord is asking us is not to; now Roger disagrees with me, he thinks we should submit to someone we don’t like and can’t respect in our flesh. But I maintain that we can’t, I can not submit right now to Graham Pulkingham because of the reason you just gave me; I disagree with him. But I fully believe the Lord will establish the authority we can submit to and respect as having a really holy authority, not a great deal of power but a holy authority. I think he will confirm it and then we will know and we will gladly lay down our lives.

And on contemplative life:

Roger: The greatest gift the Lord has given us is that of prayer. This is the monastic life whether we’re here or anywhere else. The Lord is just beginning to open up to me that avenue of approach…

And future prophesies:

Shipen: "…I somehow had the idea that we would be responsible for being that “Hair” presentation at St. John’s. Now the reason I think that is because before I left New York I talked with Sister Miriam and she said there was a prophesy given once in regard to Canon West being the warden of the convent and that was that Canon West would be the would be the warden of three organizations: Community of the Holy Spirit, the farm in Rochester, and a third one…So if that’s the case, Canon West’s business on earth will not be finished until he receives his third community.
Which means if we are the third community let’s say that he is to support us and
we decide to tie with him, then we give him the edification he needs to complete
his ministry, to be obedient to God and Canon West to finish whatever work he
has been given…"
After the meeting, we decided to continue to worship, work and fellowship at Redeemer as a separate community but without submitting to their authority, even though the Redeemer elders exerted renewed pressure for us to do so. Shipen adamently and steadfastly refused this coercion insisting Canon West was our authority not Graham Pulkingham or the Redeemer hierarchy.

Meanwhile, as Redeemer elders kept up the pressure for us to submit to them, Shipen cranked up the pressure on each of us. Some in our community were waivering, undecided if they should join Redeemer or stay with the Symphony. Three days later, Shipen called us together on the bus for yet another "on the bus or off" type meeting. This time Paul, Randy and Stephanie voiced their uncertainty of God's call and I felt our family slowly unraveling at the seams.

On Ash Wednesday, Jon Wilkes announced a Lenten fast for North Main. For the next 40days of Lent the North Main household would eat only three bowls of soup a day. Afterwards, we met on the bus and agreed to join in the fast, remaining in our position of silent support for Redeemer, that is, remaining wordless (not preaching), ambitionless and waiting on the Lord. Shipen suggested our group’s fast should also include fasting from all desires, demands and to want nothing. We all agreed. The bowls of soup started out rather thin but about half way through Lent they were almost thick enough to eat with a fork! An ongoing joke of ours over the years was one “soup” that consisted of huge chunks of steak, potatoes and carrots with just a hint of broth. The only thing missing were the buttered rolls. Hah!

We had entered a new phase of imposed silence and submission. On February 20th, we attended a dinner and fellowship with Dr. Bob Eckert’s household. We were specifically asked ahead of time not to give a musical performance. Dr. Bob was one of the Redeemer elders and certainly one of the more conservative ones in my view. During the course of the evening, Shipen talked about what the Lord had been revealing to us regarding submission. As he was speaking, Dr. Bob grew visibly tense and angry as he sat frowning and glaring at Shipen. Suddenly he burst out, interrupting one of Shipen's endless monologues, “Just submit right now, give it up and submit yourself to what the Lord is trying to say to you!” This cut Shipen off in the middle of his sentence and we all just sort of sat there in stunned silence. I kept thinking we can’t even talk about what we’ve been going through, they don’t even want to hear what we have to say! How frustrating!

How long is a little while Jesus Christ?

Not only was Shipen’s authority being challenged but also we were not welcome to share our musical ministry anymore, period. The family was being pulled apart over the whole issue submission and our merging into Redeemer. At the end of the evening, Naomi and Roger both shared that they felt the Lord wanted us to join Redeemer. As we left, someone remarked, "You know, sometimes elders can be wrong." (Or maybe Shipen just needed to knock off his long-winded preaching and get to the point is what I thought!)

Two days later Shipen called Canon West who counseled that we should stay at Redeemer for a short period of time at the end of which we should make a decision. It was agreed we would ask the elders if we could stay until June when Graham was due back in town, remaining in our status as a "visiting community". The very next day, Ariel met with David Lynch and several others of our group expressing his struggles with commitment to the Symphony. This led to another on-the-bus-or-off family meeting. Ariel said he just didn’t feel he could give up his worldly desires for food (remember we were fasting), freedom, sex and everything else. Despite pleas and prayers, Ariel decided to leave the group, again! He explained he felt he could not honestly make a commitment to stay and though we tried desperately to dissuade him, he abruptly left. (He was gone for a month.)

We met together that evening to discuss Canon West’s advice and what we should do. Shipen asked each of us to make a four-month commitment to the Symphony and asked us to commit ourselves to the Church of the Redeemer in a supportive stance. Eventually, everyone agreed, if somewhat reluctantly. As I lay in bed that night I prayed for a miracle to keep our family together. I also prayed for Ariel wherever he might be.

The very next day our commitment to Redeemer was put to the test. Shipen was called to meet with the elders. We were preparing to drive to Ft. Worth to get the bus repainted, but the elders did not think we should go. Jeff and John Farra explained to Shipen that they felt a burden for the Symphony not to go to Fort Worth since they felt that our leaving would be detrimental to our relationship with North Main house and might indeed sever it. In addition, the elders said they had not been informed of our intentions and it was the weekend of the renewal conference on marriage and family, which they felt was an important conference for us to attend. (Oh, in other words, they needed us to work at the conference, I thought, ever the skeptic.) When Shipen explained our desire to stay committed to Redeemer for fourth months, the elders were somewhat confused. They asked him if the Church of the Redeemer could take a member of the Symphony and place him wherever they wanted? Shipen countered that they could not because of our recent commitment to each other. Then they asked, why couldn’t we submit now? Shipen replied that we were not at liberty to submit ourselves to the Redeemer’s leadership because of Canon West’s advice that we should not commit ourselves fully to the vision of Church of the Redeemer - rather we should stay for a delineated period of time and then decide.

Next they discussed the relationship between North Main and the Symphony of Souls. It was agreed there was a definite separation between our two groups but that it seemed appropriate that we should remain distinct from each other. The relationship of the Symphony to North Main House was further defined by clarifying our roles: The North Main House ministry was to staff the Way In coffee house ministry four nights a week. The Symphony of Souls was a separate group with a “ministry of intercession.” We were not to be directly engaged with the coffee house’s musical ministry. This didn’t seem right! Why was our gift of music being squelched? I thought of the parable of the talents. Our music was like a candle that should not be hidden under a bushel basket. It just didn’t make sense to me.

Grudgingly we accepted a position of intercession for the Lord’s intentions for this coffee house. Shipen reminded us that Canon West had asked us to stay awhile longer before making any decisions. The upshot of the meeting was that we would not be going to Forth Worth. The elders agreed to put off making any judgment regarding our status as a visiting-family-being-fathered-from-New-York pending Graham’s return. It was also agreed we could remain at North Main for the next four months. In the meantime, the elders said they would confer and get back to us on the particulars of our relationship with Redeemer.

On February 28th, our entire community was summoned to Graham’s office to receive the decision that the elders had made about us. Expecting the worst, we came “girded up” in our commitment to each other. John Fara and Dr. Eckert surprised us all by sharing that we were totally accepted as “visitors” and that they were giving us Willard House to live in for at least the next four months. How wonderful! John Farra would be our “pastor” but it would be up to us to determine our relationship with him and with the church. We were welcomed to move in to Willard House immediately. Wow! Roger and Claudia decided to continue living apart from us, though they assured us they would still be with us in spirit.

This was very exciting and an answer to earlier prayers. After the meeting, our good friend Doy joined us on the bus kicking up his cowboy boots in celebration at the news! Relieved and delighted, we began packing and making plans to move into our new home. Our own house – awesome! That evening, John Farra invited us to come in and perform at the coffeehouse (even more amazing!) so we played Sweet Jesus and Eastern Sky. It seemed like a complete turn about. The Lord works in mysterious ways…