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.

Traveling back to the City

The Trees performing at Holy Cross Monastery April 1973

We finally said goodbye to “Larry of Louisville” and the Gethsemani monks, then headed off at 11:00 at night and drove straight through from Louisville to West Branch Michigan arriving at 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon on Good Friday at Shipen's hometown. The bus was running poorly and we were dragged out and tired. With a concert to give that evening, we had an hour to open overdue mail and get settled in out at the cottage and have some soup. Then off we went to set up at 5 pm at the United Methodist Church in West Branch.

Crabby and grouchy, Shipen and David Lynch got into a rather innocuous argument over the icon and the issue of devotion (or lack of it) and this led to withdrawal, then to mistrust and finally to resentment. There was only time for a brief discussion where they reached a stalemate before tuned up and went on. Shipen gave a long history of the group as usual and then we played the concert: Eastern Sky, Birth, Sanctus, Taka, Baptism, 10 days, 104 Broadway Bus, Koto, Fervently, raga, Wander trilogy, 7 minute intermission, Rothko, How Long, Kyrie, Mary’s Song, Captain, Beard, Lamb of God, Comfortless, Chant, Bells, Glory Be to Jesus, ending with the Blessing (ringing) of Bells. I recognized many familiar faces and we had a good rapport with the audience. Afterwards we drove back to Shipen's family cottage for a delicious dinner that his mother had cooked. I wondered if maybe Shipen learned his culinary skills from his mom?

On Saturday we tried to call Madeline L’Engle but couldn’t reach her. When we set off for our next concert the bus got stuck in two feet of mud, so we had to use other vehicles to move the instruments to Trinity Episcopal Church. We managed to squeeze into a tight corner up by the altar. We ate lunch with Father Sidney Breeze and his wife working out details for the next day’s service and concert. Afterwards, Shipen and Steve extricated the bus and drove it, once again, to a local garage in town. Dinner with the Lebzelters was excellent as always and we all headed off to bed exhausted. An unresolved heaviness hung over the group from David and Shipen’s previous argument.

On Easter Sunday we participated in a glorious service at Trinity Episcopal. It began with the faint tinkling sound of bells, which we rang quietly at the very back of the church. Then suddenly the organist burst into the swelling notes of Jesus Chris is Risen Today, Alleluia and the doors were thrown open. In marched a procession led by Father Breeze in beautiful Easter vestments, followed by the choir, and then us in our white robes ringing Sanctus bells during the chorus. It was anything but a traditional sleepy service. We played at different points during the service, and then recessed playing Sanctus bells once again, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Afterwards, we returned to the Lebzelter cottage and met at length to work through our differences. I kept thinking about the first disciples, huddled together frightened and in disagreement, unaware Jesus was alive. Finally, unable to come to agreement, prayer paved the way to reconciliation. Shipen’s mother Dorothy had again prepared a glorious feast for dinner, which was followed by a quiet evening of sharing and reflection with guests and friends.

On Monday we finally reached Madeleine L’Engle and told her of our recent disagreements, strained relationships and tension. Her advice was to go into silence and not try to wrestle with any more problems. So during lunch there was a short reading from the Spirit of Poverty followed by four hours of solitude and silence so each of us could listen to our own heart. Somehow this actually helped! When Shipen and David finally did talk together they were able to find accord and reach a level of trust again. At dinner, in our typically overly introspective way, we talked about how we each experienced the period of silence.

The next day we headed off to my parent’s home in West Bloomfield where we would stay for the next three days. We arrived just after lunch and were greeted by my three longhaired brothers, my extremely boisterous sister, my Mom, Dad and my quiet, senile Granny. That afternoon, we got out our instruments and had a delightfully fun jam session in the family music room with my brother Ben on sitar, brother Chris on guitar, my Dad on piano or banjo, and my sister Heidi and David Karasek on violins. David Lynch and Chris shared guitar techniques and the finer points of Martin guitars while Shipen and Ben talked about sitars and eastern music. In the evening, we performed at Church of Our Savior in Bloomfield Hills, which had been my home church when I was in ninth and tenth grade. I was delighted to be playing for my family, friends and neighbors who came to hear us.

Performing at Church of our Savior, Bloomfield Hills, MI

Before we left, I sat out on the front lawn with my mother talking about my future. I admitted that I still hoped to marry David and that I was deeply in love with him. I explained why our marriage was on hold and how eventually, we hoped the community would accept the idea. Of course, my mother raised the typical motherly concerns and gave her pitch, again, for my leaving the group. She expressed her concerns that she thought Shipen was too dictatorial and that I should be careful not to be brainwashed and swallowed up by the group. I did my best to allay her fears, assuring her we were not a Jim Jones cult and that Shipen was just our leader. Later that evening we played to a small crowd at Christ Church Cranbrook – dismal - then returned to my parent’s home for a big dinner with my family.

Dinner with the Ruetenik family 1973

The following day my brother Dan showed some of his excellent movies he had made as well as his outstanding cartoon that took you on a journey zooming into a bug on a leaf, then zooming in on the bug’s eye which led into a new scene (similar to the book Zoom only this was 30 years earlier). The group was duly impressed with Dan’s artistry and creativity.

Being Silly at Shishonee's family home

On April 27th we left West Bloomfield and drove amidst a gentle rain through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and into New York. The bus, of course, was acting up and the engine oil pressure gauge moved down into dangerously low levels. We drove to the nearest mechanic who was able to offer little help so we chanced it and drove on to West Park and arrived at 3:15 p.m. at Holy Cross Monastery.

The Trees Group, a community of seven Christian minstrels based at the
Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, recently gave an unusual
musical presentation during their visit to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park.

We were given guest rooms for the duration of our visit, a kind of retreat for us until we were to leave for the Cathedral, which was planned, of course, for our foundation day, May 2nd. We spent those last three days attending services, giving a concert, relaxing, and typing up our individual presentations about what each of our duties entailed (secretary, tour manager, treasurer, etc.). We wanted to be totally prepared when we presented ourselves at our first meeting with Canon West and the Dean of the Cathedral.