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.

Symphony House

A musical jam session at Symphony House

Finally our original vision of having our own house had been fulfilled. Glorious! Eagerly we said goodby to our brothers and sisters at North Main, loaded the bus with all our belongings and moved into 419 Williard Street, Houston, Texas, our new Symphony House! It was a large, two story wood sided house with oak floors and big floor-to-ceiling windows. What a delight to be able to spread out into that spacious house. We women would have one bedroom and the men the other. Downstairs there was a dining room, living room (which we used for music practice) a kitchen, and a back patio area. Throughout the following weeks we cleaned, stripped wallpaper, painted, scrubbed, washed and waxed floors and made this home our own. We painted some walls soft green like a meadow and other walls a darker green like a forest. We removed wallpaper from the dining room and stained the wood. We made a dining room table from a huge piece of wood covered with linen that was set about a foot off the floor. There we ate our meals Japanese style. You either had to sit with your legs crossed or stretched out underneath it or kneel. There were always visitors who joined us for meals of miso soup, beans, vegetables and rice or delicious homemade bread and bowls of hot chili that Shipen seasoned with secret ingredients – once he used a dash of cologne!

Meals in the Dining Room were Japanese style

I'll never forget Shipen trying to teach me how to cook Texas chili. It was one of my first real cooking lessons. As we sat adding seasonings over a huge dark blue enamel pot, he told me that cooking was a lot like art. You had to think creatively and experiment. It was important to start slowly, adding only one ingredient at a time, always tasting carefully – "a good artist knows when to stop"! After a few drinks, he might even toss some beer or coffee into the chili! No matter what Shipen added, the food was always excellent. I remember he would get out this heavy, three inch thick book called Gastronomic that was all about the art of French cooking. Sarah and I were supposed to read a chapter a month or something like that, and then we were supposed to cook some of the soups and meals from this massive tome. Unfortunately, I never got past all the misunderstood words just in the ingredients alone so nothing ever really sank in. Pretty soon I was back to my mixed up, throw-in-the-left-overs casseroles. Though I did learn to cook “42-cloves-of-garlic-chicken”, sourdough bread and delicious chili, stews and a few other basic dishes, I never came close to becoming the master chef that Shipen was. I just never had his passion for cooking.

I loved our expansive new home. Suddenly there was room for art, painting, rehearsing, and lots of physical space to move in - even a backyard. Steve turned the backyard into his private studie where he created beautiful artwork using small wooden shadow boxes filled with poignant and delicate artifacts. He scrounged up discarded raffia mats and placed them around the patio creating an intriguing outdoor hideaway. There, he and Ariel carefully pruned bonsai trees or worked on art. Another room was transformed into a wonderland of exotic instruments artfully placed around the room and tied to the walls with colorful pieces of ribbon. We were to have many wonderful jam sessions in the next weeks, some going on into the wee early morning hours as we traveled on musical journeys with Redeemer friends and guests, exploring and building off one another.

Max Dyer, formerly of the Fisherfolk and now a professional cellist, writes about one such experience:

"I loved the music room! One afternoon, I wandered in alone and sat down on a cushion next to the wall and picked up an instrument close at hand. It was an autoharp. I gave it a strum with my finger. Someone had retuned it microtonally and a swoosh of esoteric overtones filled the room! Shipen came in smiling and sat down Indian style opposite me and picked up some exotic instrument. I suddenly felt a little flattered by his complete engagement. I gave a tap on the autoharp and plucking a few strings I was struck by his concentration, his deep receptivity, how his own sounds now merged with mine, instantly creating music!…

I offered a few new notes and he took them up smoothly, responding with a fluency and grace that was obviously born of high intelligence. This was irresistible. I launched out. Improvising suddenly became effortless. Everything I did sounded great. It was fun! A sense of my own expressive power arose within me and my soul began to sing. We jammed! We rode the currents of this intuitive sound language, taking pleasure in the enjoyment of some outrageous truth…. Then gradually it ended and we both sat silent, exhilarated and bathed in a powerful peace. I began to marvel at Shipen’s extraordinary giftedness that had become the foundation for this group." [end of excerpt]

Throughout the house, we set up our kerosene lamps and often used them at night for our evening services or for reading. I recall once I was feeling restless so I decided to go for a walk in the cool evening air. As I returned I paused, seeing our house from a distance. I was filled with emotion looking at our home -so warm and inviting lit by the old fashioned lamps, with Sarah sewing as she sat by the window and David bending over his guitar, practicing the chords of a new song. I felt oddly melancholy and inexplicably sad. One word reverberated through me – home. This place seemed like a real home to me, more so than any other place we had lived in before. Once again I wondered, “Is this the place where we can finally sink roots? Will we ever find that physical space where we can slow down and begin to really grow? What is your will Lord?”

Thus began a new chapter in our lives at Redeemer, with new freedoms and a return to our own daily rhythms and traditions. We returned to having regular chapter meetings after morning worship, music rehearsals, dinner together and Compline.

The next hurdle was finding a source of income. Some of us still volunteered at the church and fixed up church houses while others found various temporary jobs through Manpower. I got a job at a local health food bakery baking bread, cookies, and muffins. On my first day, I walked into a small, dirty, unorganized back room in a warehouse type building and discovered this was the “health food bakery.” After being given a quick tour, the boss tossed a handful of recipes on the counter, told me to bake 20 loaves of whole wheat bread and left. Feeling a little overwhelmed, I washed off a counter, put on an apron and rolled up my sleeves. I can do this, I thought to myself as I laid out all the ingredients. I reached into a huge bag of whole wheat flour sitting on the floor to scoop the flour into a giant mixing bowl then dropped the cup in horror. The bowl was alive with hundreds of tiny dark wriggling things! Leaning down for a closer look I saw the bag of flour was crawling with bugs. Disgusting! I immediately closed up the bag and heaved it into the dumpster. When my boss returned a few minutes later he scolded me for being so wasteful saying the bugs were only on the top layer! Just scoop them out, he insisted. Shocked, I inspected the other bags and as soon as he left I threw out about four bags of contaminated flour, oats and wheat germ. I repackaged all the rest in airtight containers from a nearby closet and spent the next three hours scrubbing and cleaning up the bakery. When he returned later in the afternoon and asked where everything was, I explained I had cleaned and reorganized and that it would help the food taste fresher to have everything sealed up. He seemed pleased and let me take over the running of the bakery. Phew!

Baking was a gas! I knew I would never be a chef of the caliber of Shipen, Ariel or Stephen but it was something I really enjoyed. I baked blueberry muffins, oatmeal cookies, all kinds of healthy bread, and I even experimented with making different kinds of granola. I brought it home for us to try out and it was a hit! My boss liked it so much he suggested we market it under the name “Aunt Shishonee’s Granola.” I was thrilled when the granola and some of my other recipes like “Aunt Shishonee’s Oatmeal Cookies” became hot sellers at local health food stores.

In the new music room we returned to working on our music again. David Lynch’s wrote an upbeat song called The Captain. I wrote a new meditation song called Baptism ending in the words, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabackthani.” We met and fellowshipped with members of the Keyhole, the music group from The Way In coffeehouse. Mikel Kennedy came by often and there were wonderful free form experimental jam sessions with Mikel, Max Dyer, Bonnie, Kathy, Diane Davis Andrew, and other Redeemer musicians. I especially loved the music sessions with Max Dyer on cello and me on harp. It seemed no matter what I played, his cello parts provided a perfect counterpoint, his rich melodies weaving through the staccato plucking of the harp chords. Diane Davis Andrew was another gifted musician from Redeemer who often joined our musical sessions. She had written the beautiful song "I am a rock, a sure foundation, base your life on me, I am reality, come walk with me" -a richly melodic song that was often sung during Redeemer worship services. Easter morning, she and I sang a duet with harp that I had written called I Went Walking in the Garden during Communion at Redeemer. Sometimes Roger and Claudia popped in to play ragas.

Our pets at the time were still Emma and Buki, our two Hutterite kittens. They became very ill during our months at Redeemer with some type of feline influenza and nearly died. Luckily with care, nursing and several expensive vet bills later they pulled through! I loved our kittens. Sometimes our little white deaf kitten Emma would climb into the sounding hole in the front of my Venezuelan folk harp. When I would pluck the strings, suddenly her head would pop out and surprise us all! We also adopted a wonderful dog for a few weeks that we named Leaf Puppy. We called him that because the first time I met him on the street he picked up a leaf and delicately delivered it to me like a treasured gift into my waiting hands. He reminded me of a circus dog because he could do all kinds of amazing tricks! The most impressive was when you would hand him a note and say, “Now go give this to Stephen.” He would ever so gently grasp it between his teeth and off he would trot happily taking it directly to whomever you had said! What a remarkable dog!

On March 28th, Stephanie and a friend picked Ariel up at the airport. He arrived grinning his old mischievous grin and carrying a tiny potted bonsai tree. He had called four weeks prior asking to come back, so we had agreed to turn it over to the Lord in prayer. I was very relieved to have him back! He returned seeming refreshed, happier, and with a twinkle in his eye again.

Meanwhile, the group was still struggling with being on-the-bus or off-the-bus, joining Redeemer or not joining Redeemer. On Good Friday, we met after dinner for a long, painful and angry discussion. Roger and Paul both expressed their loyalty to Church of the Redeemer and there were many angry outbursts and bitter words that followed. In the end, Roger and Paul remained adamant that they would stay outside our community. I had the feeling we had reached a crossroads and there would be no turning back.

About a week later, our group reached the breaking point. Paul, Randy, Stephanie and Naomi announced they were unwilling to commit their lives to the Symphony and expressed their belief that God was calling them to commit to Redeemer. As we were about to leave for church, Shipen asked David Lynch, Ariel and I to stay back for a private meeting. Sounding us out, we soon realized each of us was in complete agreement that we should not forsake the gift God had given and one by one reaffirmed our commitment to our musical vision. The next day we met as a family and the four of us shared our firm commitment to that original vision with the others. Alas, no amount of pleading or eloquent arguments would sway them.

Two days later, we drove over to the church and met with the elders once again. That meeting lasted for three hours, as we worked through fears, frustrations, miscommunications and misunderstandings. The elders expressed their view that our four-month commitment must be broken to set free those who were bound (as they phrased it) so they could chose what they want to do. Finally they asked that anyone who wanted to remain with the Symphony should leave the meeting room. Seven of us (Shipen, David Lynch, David Karasek, Sarah, Stephen, Ariel and myself) stood up and slowly walked out of the room while Paul, Randy, Stephanie and Naomi Goldman remained behind with the Redeemer elders.

Somberly, we stood outside of the meeting room in a sad circle and agreed we should immediately call Canon West. Shipen conveyed the disappointing news. In his maddeningly mysterious manner, Canon West responded by sharing a story of the disobedience and unruly behavior of monks at a monastery and how as a result the abbot had quietly left and gone about his business. As usual, he left it up to us to interpret what his analogy meant. (What a contrast from the down-to-earth directive style of the Redeemer elders who left little to be misunderstood.) After hanging up, we returned to the meeting and shared the story with the elders and our ex-members. At the time, I interpreted Canon West’s story as meaning our four departing members were being the disobedient and naughty monks and that we should turn away from them and quietly carry on about our business without them. In retrospect, I wonder if they thought the same about us? The elders asked Paul, Randy, Stephanie and Naomi to stay behind to talk and I could hear them laughing and talking as we solemnly walked away. Stephanie reflects back on the situation:

"Personally, I never interpreted the parable as some of us being disobedient nor did I ever tell you or any one what had happened (except Naomi - because it happened when we were together) that brought me to my own personal decision about Redeemer.

It actually goes back, way back, to my stay in the convent in NYC the summer we were on the Hutterite Farm. My primary purpose in returning to the City was to attend my brother Roy's bar mitzvah and secondly to have a mini retreat at Community of the Holy Spirit to get clarity on my call. However, I went to Long Island but not my bother’s bar mitzvah because the sisters cautioned me not to. They felt it was too soon to return to "that way of life" and I might be tempted to forsake the Lord. Wanting to please the Lord and not understanding how to be "Jewish" and believe in Him, I agonized in prayer over their advice. Finally, after much weeping, I gave up the desire to go to Roy’s bar mitzvah and instead stayed at the convent the whole time. I know now, it was not necessary - that Jesus, being very Jewish, attended the synagogue and my whole revelation of Him came because by some miracle, I knew the Father. The word says, “if you know My Father who is in heaven, You will know Me." In the remainder of my time there, I sought God about my calling and spent time with Reverend Mother discussing it, the gifts of the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit. No matter how I looked at it, I came away with knowing that my "calling" would involve marriage and family some where down the road, just not NOW. I also knew that as Reverend Mother said, whatever God wanted to give me, I wanted to receive. After the Maranatha Praise and Power Festival, I had told the Lord I didn't want the gifts of the Spirit, just the fruit. Reverend Mother, altered that determination with her kind words, “my daughter, never refuse what our Lord offers you.”

At St. Gregory’s Abbey, I again wrestled with the Lord about this whole "baptism of the Holy Spirit" issue. At the Abbey, I saw something different than what I saw at the Hutterite Farm or the Maranatha Praise and Power Festival. What I saw was sweet and gentle; it wasn't threatening or disrespectful feeling. Through these eyes and the friendships of two postulates, the Lord opened my heart. To my surprise, I experienced this baptism. Along with it, came an incredible joy I had never known before and the praying with tongues, which I had so previously feared.

The event set into motion what became a very painful period for me in the Symphony/Trees. From that time forward I hit heads with Shipen on a regular basis. What happened to me seemed to have scared him or something, because he convinced Roger and then others, that something demonic had happened to me and he wanted to deliver me. I knew it was not demonic at all! In fact, I had received intense instruction by the Lord through all the encounters I had when I first believed that I was quite confident I knew the difference! I refused Shipen’s ministry offer and felt like an outcast because of it. I do not remember how long this agony lasted but I do remember where or when it changed for me. It was, when we met Sister Cleo. She prophetically spoke words of life to me about being “Abraham’s daughter” and "a princess who had God’s favor". That night, as I journaled I wrote what I later called, “My first love letter to the Lord.” It flowed from me as if it was not from me and I could just “hear it.” After I finished writing the Lord spoke to my heart and told me it was the answer to my prayer for a song and together with David L. He would give us the melody for what we later named, "Oh Jesus How I Love You."

By the time we got to Redeemer, I was ready for change. I felt stifled. My musical inferiority combined with my apparent theological differences made me feel like an outsider among the very people that had been my family away from home. At Redeemer, well, lets just say, “the grass” definitely “looked greener.” I saw people living a Spirit filled radical life style that included family. This started my heart thinking; maybe I could do both....maybe I could live radically for the Lord without compromising my faith or convictions and eventually even marry and raise children.

Still I am a slow and careful decision maker, so I made no decision until AFTER that meeting with the elders. It was agonizing, praying about leaving this my first spiritual family. In fact, I never would have made a decision that Tuesday evening if Shipen hadn’t put forth an ultimatum. Even after the ultimatum, I was so angry, that I was not going to rehearsal or to the church; I was just going to sit outdoors on the porch. In my heart's perception, Shipen was being as pushy and dogmatic as the elders had been earlier and it hurt. Yet, for some reason Naomi and I ended up in Randy's car praying about the decision we were being forced to make. As we sat there, I got a very clear, distinct impression/word from the Lord. I knew it was Him because it had only happed to me once before, the night He gave me the words for "Oh Jesus" knowing David had the melody. I am amazed I even knew what to do with this word. The word was one of encouragement from the Lord because of our diligence to pursue Him to know His heart. I knew Shipen was my father in the faith but I also knew, I was meant to stay in Houston.

I hated the way that I ended leaving our Symphony family. I know it was after Easter because I had locked horns with Shipen on the Easter weekend. I was tired of always being the one to ask the hard questions and to challenge Shipen’s decrees. As Paul said one time, our discussions always seemed to end up with Shipen and I in some sort of conflict or confrontation followed by my crying. It seemed to me that if there was one besetting sin we all had, it was pride, followed by an idolatry of sorts. We seemed to take it for granted everywhere we went that “we had a message” to deliver and reluctantly realized we had a message to receive as well. We also relied much to heavily on Shipen for approval, direction, leadership and even parenting. On the other hand, God in His infinite mercy was constantly putting us in a place to humble us and mold our character. Wherever we went, it seemed, He backed us in a corner where we - like at Redeemer, would be tested and have our character proved. Shipen was brilliant, and for God to use him as He planned, humility was a requirement. For God to use me as He planned, humility was also a requirement. I cannot tell you how often I continued to lock horns with men in authority. It took many years for me to conclude, submission is a gift and a choice. Anyone can demand it but I get to decide who I give permission to control me. When I look back on the communities we stormed through, I realize, we were shown a lot of grace by everyone who took us in, including the Church of the Redeemer.

“Oh Jesus, how I love you, thank You for all you have done in my life. Let all I do praise you. Let all that I say, bless Your name. Heavenly Father, my lips shall praise You. And my breath, praise you. Let the heavens rejoice and the mountains sing psalms. All men speak Your name in praise. For the King of Glory has taken His throne in my heart. We shall praise His name forever more. When we all sit down to sup with Him, then we shall sing, “hosanna.”
To this day, there is only one sadness I have in leaving The Trees besides losing touch with dear friends, that is, not having known a relaxed, free flowing, mature grace filled friendship with Shipen. There is something to be said for reconciliation, healing and humility that is better lived out on a day-to-day basis. "

It was very quiet riding home on the bus that night without our friends, as each of us pondered what had happened. As I sat lost in my thoughts, I was depressed seeing this deep schism that had ripped our family apart. I realized that this time no amount of brow beating or coercion, begging or pleading would bring our little family back together. Yet above all, more than anything this is what my heart desired.