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.

The City's Siren Song: Murmurs of our Discontent

I will never leave you nor forsake you.
If you love me you will keep my Word.
My Father will love you,
We will come to you and make our home with you.
-From the icon of Jesus painted by Lavrans

May 1, 1975. We arrived back in New York City at 9:00 p.m. in the evening, haggard, bedraggled and very glad to be home. We unloaded our instruments quietly into the Cathedral and then drove around the corner to our apartment on 110th Street. Oh it was so good to be home! The subletters had left the apartment fairly clean, though not quite up to our standards. The plants, on the other hand, had grown into a forest, amazing! (You have to sing and talk kindly to them I was later informed by our temporary tenant. A lot of misting also helps.)
We decided not to unpack the food, pots and pans (we’d leave that for later), so after unloading the instruments and a few other things, we parked the bus on the Cathedral close, then trudged wearily back to our apartment. I fell into my loft bed, completely exhausted . As I lay on the edges of sleep, my thoughts skipped through all the major events of the past five years, like a movie on fast forward. I thought about how far we had come and wondered about our future. Five years and so many changes. What would become of us now? Would we return to live on a farm near Gethsemani? Would we stay and form a monastic community here in New York City? Would we leave and travel the country again? Who would stay and who would leave? I prayed that the Lord would speak to each of us, guiding us toward his will for our future. Show me Lord what you want me to do. God, help me hear your voice and show us your vision for our family. Speak to each of us clearly and if it is your will, strengthen our musical ministry. Help us each decide whether to commit to another year together, living in communal life.

Just before falling asleep, I couldn’t forget our lost cat: Wherever Daniel is Lord, take care of our dear kitty and keep him safe. Send angels to watch over him and protect him and if it is your will let him find his way home.

May 2nd, 1975. Tree’s Foundation Day. We dressed in our full length green habits and marched solemnly over to the Cathedral for 7:15 a.m. services. The Eucharist was celebrated by Canon West and I was pleased that he was so precise and efficient that he always managed to finish the entire service in exactly a half hour, which made it much more bearable to me. We returned home, had breakfast and then held a brief chapter meeting. Shipen reminded us all that today would be a day of decisions for each of us, and that we should give careful thought to whether we could commit ourselves to another year with the Trees or not. Then we held a brief discussion about the day’s duties and created a plan of action for how we’d get the apartment back in order and prepare for the evening festivities. It would take all day to get moved back in, spiff up the apartment and get everything in order for our important visitor – Canon West.

At 5:15 p.m., Christopher and Stephen escorted Canon West to our dwelling, and seated him as comfortably as possible on pillows in the living room. Dressed in a long black vestment, he sat ramrod straight, looking regal and inscrutable as always. After drinks and hors d’oeuvres, we eagerly played the tape of our first record album for him. Leaning forward, anxiously, we awaited his opinion. After a long silence he replied that it was exquisite – it sounded better than us! I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Shipen filled him in on our plans to publish the music with Roller Mills Studio and distribute it on a secular level, while we pursuing the Christian market. He responded by shaking his head and saying that we might have some difficulty marketing it in “Christian” circles. Before we could argue with him further, he lapsed into silence without any further explanation.

Then we gathered around the gleaming bronze and copper covered table, laden with steaming turkey, vegetables, salad and fresh sourdough bread. For desert, we had cheesecake and sherry. As always, throughout the meal, Canon West was maddeningly quiet and unreadable. I felt as if we were acting like his Irish setters, a bit rowdy and rude and over-anxious with each of us trying eagerly to please their master. We regaled him with some of our wilder adventures from the Southern tour. Stephen told him the story of the sea-sick fishing excursion he, Shipen, Dorian and Shipen’s parents had in Florida. We told him about Monroe the mountain man and his million-dollar Stradivarius violin, and about recording the album and even our story about Daniel running away and Stephen ending up nearly arrested. After several more glasses of sherry, for some reason we started talking about clothing and I proudly announced that most of my clothes came directly from K-mart and the local thrift shop. (Oh boy – time to cut me off.)
The photograph we have of him is how I will always remember him, sitting quietly with a slightly bemused expression...

Canon West May 2, 1975

Then it was time for the traditional four chronicle readings. I chose four major turning points in the Tree’s history in keeping with the fact that this was a day of decision for each of us with regard to our commitment to the Trees. First, I read about our initial departure from New York City on May 2nd, 1970. Next, I read about the meeting with Redeemer elder’s when nearly half our members decided to leave in Houston. Then I read about our farewell evening of music with the Pecos brethren and finally from May 2nd, 1973 when we returned to the Cathedral to become artists in residence and had our first foundation day dinner with Canon West. Before we could lapse into sentimentality, Canon West excused himself, explaining that it was the worst time of year for his shingles and sciatica. Christopher and Stephen escorted him home.

When they returned, we gathered together as a family and each of us then signed a small “commitment card” on which was written a simple contract saying we would promise to be a Tree and then there was a space to write in either “for another year” or whatever. All of us committed to one more year except Melody, Christopher and Patricia who committed to being Trees but left everything else blank on the card. We prayed together and the official festivities ended - somewhat anticlimacticly I thought.

Almost immediately, David Lynch left for Dorita’s for the weekend, Shipen took off to Dorian’s for the weekend, Christopher plunked down in front of the TV and the rest of us either washed dishes or retired to read a book. So began another year. I was relieved that at least we hadn’t lost anyone. What was next in our future? Would we be able to continue in the midst of the temptations of New York City? Would we remain at the Cathedral? Would we find a farm near Gethsemani? Would we survive the difficulties and growing pains of the second half of our evolution? What was to become of David and I? What would become of our musical ministry?

Something foreboding loomed on the horizon yet as I fell to sleep that night, I was oblivious to the major upheaval that would rock our small group just five months hence. All I knew was that I felt relieved and peaceful as I lay praying in the comfort of my own bed, gazing out the window at the New York City lights twinkling against the night sky. As I drifted off, I had mixed feelings about being back in the City…Somehow it always seemed to pull us apart…

May 3rd, 1975. We were home for only one day and already I feared we were going downhill. With David Lynch and Shipen gone, I kept visualizing the City as this powerful, black cloaked death-like force pulling our tiny family in different directions. I much preferred our life on the road, despite its hassles. At least on the bus we were together and active in our ministry. At least at the monastery in Pecos, we worked but there were no carnal distractions, no night life, no parties, no gyms, no lovers to lure us away.
In retrospect, it is clear to me why most successful religious orders cloister themselves from the world in order to survive and grow. I think we were naive to think that we could create a solid monastic community in the Sodom and Gomorra-like setting of New York City. I think we might have been able to pull it off in the wilderness of Pecos, New Mexico or on a farm near the supportive community of Gethsemani. However, even with Canon West's guidance and direction, the City brought far too distractions, temptations, and destructive influences. I know I was too immature and I suspect all of us had our own weaknesses or unmet needs that would soon come to play...

It was officially a day off, so we each spent it as we liked. Mary and I puttered around the apartment but most everyone else left. In the evening Canon West had invited us to attend an orthodox Easter celebration at the nearby Russian Orthodox Church on 92nd Street at which he was officiating. Mary and I arrived just as a procession of priests and vestry members dressed in jewel studded gold gilt robes was entering. A golden cross was held aloft, followed by a priest swinging clouds of sweet smelling incense. I was in awe of the interior beauty of the church, with the walls covered with ancient paintings and icons, the room packed with hundreds of people all standing reverently throughout the entire service. Admiring all the pomp and ceremony, I could totally appreciate Canon West’s love and admiration for the orthodox church – it embodied everything he loved and aspired to. Looking around I noticed other Cathedral folk in attendance, Tom and Mary Croft, and eventually David arrived with Dorita draped on his arm. Watching them stroll in, immediately I felt angry and jealous. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to pray away my feelings as the service went on and on.
Eventually Mary and I looked up and realized it was 3:00 a.m. and all the other Trees had left yet the service was still going strong! People had been standing for hours, amazing! Tired, we slipped out and headed home, a bit apprehensive at having to walk home through the dark city streets by ourselves. Thankfully, we made it safely to our front door. Just as we were ready to breathe a sigh of relief, we discovered that someone had smashed the locks trying to break into our apartment. Angels must have been on guard because the main lock had held. Praise God! Quickly, we turned the main bolt, rushed inside and slammed and locked the door. Good God, we thought, think of all the instruments they could have stolen!

The next day was Sunday and once again, I felt strangely disconnected. We all attended morning mass at the Cathedral but almost as soon as David, Shipen and Dorian had appeared, they disappeared again for the rest of the day. Shipen was off to Dorian’s apartment, others went out to the park or somewhere, and David went over to Dorita’s. I felt a gnawing discontent. What was going wrong with our community? Why did the others feel so compelled to leave? Would it happen that one day they would leave and never come back? Throughout the day as I cleaned, did loads of laundry, and practiced my harp, I felt an ugly mixture of discontent, jealousy and depression as I mulled over the relationship between David and Dorita, who now went everywhere together. I folded piles and piles of everyone’s clothes down in the basement laundry room of the apartment building as anger and hurt simmered in my gut. In the kitchen, as I punched and kneaded dough to make loaves of bread, I felt incredibly lonely and abandoned. We were coming apart at the seams. It seemed like the moment we entered the city, people forgot their commitment, and abandoned their vows. The whole fabric of our religious life was starting to unravel! I was annoyed and feeling sorry for myself as I went through the motions of the day. With Shipen, David and Dorian still missing in action, the rest of us said Compline together and turned in early to bed. I tossed and turned for awhile, thinking about David, feeling hurt and abandoned. What was so special about Dorita? Why didn’t David love me? Nursing my wounds, I dug my journal out of my desk and climbing back into bed, I wrote a poem, as I often did, to try to deal with my churning emotions:

It was beautiful
The life we had together
Wrapped in the same emotions
But today I realized
The circle had finally closed.
You made the turn
And when I tried to offer you my heart
You were no longer there.
I had fought the truth
Wildly denying the obvious
Refusing to see with wounded eyes
That you were already done.
They tried to tell me
The others who knew
And saw the two of you together
But I surrounded myself with hope
And walked boldly to the door
Opened it
And found the room was dark
And strangely empty
I ran, searching for you,
Opening other doors
My eyes blurred with tears
Until I came upon one small room
Lit in dim candle light.
There were all the treasures
From my heart.
There were the pictures of you
The beach shells, the poetry
Our music, the stolen secrets
The many long walks together
The hours of laughter, stories,
and the endless dreams of love
The last night we sat talking
Your life already packed beside the bed
I rose walking slowly through the room
And then stood a long time
In the silence…
I shoved the shells
Deep into my pocket
The edges sharp against my finger
And blew out the candle
Then gently closed
The door to my heart.

May 5th. We rose at 5:30 a.m. and amazingly David and Shipen actually showed up over at the Cathedral for morning prayer. After breakfast, Melody and David worked on our next tour that was to begin in the fall. David focused his efforts on letters to all the Episcopal Churches while Melody targeted all the other protestant churches. Meanwhile Shipen was busy helping a neighbor named Bobby Lee who lived a few floors below us. Bobby had admired our loft beds so Shipen was helping him build loft beds and do other carpentry work. In exchange, Bobby gave us a beautiful antique kerosene lamp chandelier that we hung over our glass topped copper and brass dining room table (which Shipen had also designed and built.)

May 6th. Somehow or other, we were contacted by a group called the Community of Joy, who invited us out to Allentown, Pennsylvania to visit their farm. I don’t know exactly how the offer came about but they felt strongly that the Lord was calling us to take over their farm and begin a ministry there. A farm! That vision of a farm kept coming back. We decided that possibly the Lord was at work in the invitation so after mass and our chapter meeting, we clambered aboard Athanasius and drove out to Allentown to check out this farm. Dorian joined us for the adventure. We arrived at a prearranged location in town where our hosts met us and then guided us up a steep, rocky road to the farm. I had visions of beautiful fenced pastures, an old stone farmhouse, a huge barn and trees surrounded by countryside.

Alas, when we arrived I was sorely disappointed. The “farm” was situated high on a hill overlooking the crowded, dirty industrial city of Allentown. It was an ugly sight. The property itself was overgrown and rundown. The main house was a tiny cottage huddled beneath two burned and blackened boarded up houses. Our hosts smiled excitedly and eagerly showed us all around the ramshackle grounds. Then they led us down into a musty, damp basement in the cramped cottage where we sat on an old stained mattress, and a few flimsy metal chairs.

They led us in enthusiastic, charismatic type prayer with sighs and moans, peppered with “Yes, Lord…Halleluiah and Praise God!”. After praying together, we then exchanged histories of our two communities. Oddly enough, we had some common ground in our experiences with places like the Church of the Redeemer and The Children of God. We talked for two hours or so and learned that their community had no “elders” except for one father and that they were against one person wielding authority over others, as was the case at Redeemer. As we talked, we realized that this was not quite what we were looking for and that our vision of a contemplative, quiet, farm retreat did not mesh with the reality of that dismal place. Even though they were offering us a farm “free for the taking”, we realized that God was not calling us there. Finally, thanking them and promising to pray about their offer, we left and drove the long trip back to the City - disappointed once again. Were we too hasty in our disgust? Were we too intimidated by the overwhelming disarray? Or too snobbish in our perfect dream for a farm? I just remember the place was so creepy I felt like I was on the set for a demented Hollywood murder movie. Ick!

May 7th Patricia Gambill’s Birthday. It was a warm spring day and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom on the Cathedral Close with new light green leaves and splashes of pink color. Patricia thoughtfully removed herself so we could make our preparations for the traditional birthday festivities. After planning everything out during our Chapter meeting, we hopped onto the bus and drove down to Greenwich Village to put up posters advertising our Cathedral concerts based on the Christ Tree.

Concert Poster

On the bottom of each poster, we added information about the time and location of the concerts. We covered a large area with posters while Shipen took off to get his hair cut. Next stop was the animal shelter to search for Patricia’s birthday present. We ooohed and aaahed over all the little kittens up for adoption, trying to pick out the right one. Finally, we settled on the tiniest black and white kitten there. It was chasing all the other kittens around and acting like a real rascal – perfect. We brought him home and hid him in the women’s bedroom but it was impossible to keep him quiet so eventually Mary came up with the idea of bringing the TV into the bedroom and turning it to nonstop cartoons because “Shishonee has a headache.” It worked! When Patricia left for awhile, I quickly set about making Chicken Cacciatore, brown rice, bread, and the cake failure which was a “Strawberry Snort Cake.” When Patricia returned, we had drinks and pretzels, then Christopher played a tape of a new song he’d written for her (which was beautiful!). Finally, we brought in the kitten with a big red bow around his neck. Patricia beamed with joy and immediately named him Lavrans.

Patricia with her new kitten "Lavrans"

After dinner, Shipen took Patricia, Christopher and Stephen out to a new Broadway play. That night, as now happened every night, Shipen and David disappeared, showing up just in time for chapter meeting in the morning.

It seemed like it took ages, but the next day we received a letter from Abbott Timothy of Gethsemani, in response to our request to move near their community. Eagerly we tore open the envelope and Shipen read it aloud to all of us gathered:

April 30, 1975

Dear Trees,

It was certainly a joy to have you in our midst again, and although I was not able personally to attend your concert, everyone commented on the real praying experience that it was and a real liberating event. Enclosed is a small donation to assist you in your very real apostolate.

Concerning your request or thinking out loud about taking up residence near Gethsemani for a part of your life or part of the year, I believe that Brother Paul offered the suggestion of the Mitchums, a family in the nearby vicinity. Certainly this would have possibilities. We could also discuss Gethsemani itself a bit further. It seems to me that one of the deep questions is the ecclesiological question. Pardon my particular perspective, but I do believe that there is an essential pain caused by the Christian division that we have to suffer with. If there is to be some more or less long term relation with Gethsemani, I think that this particular area would have to be understood and accepted on both sides, not as a point of division but rather as a point of unity at least in our common suffering.

Again, thanks ever so much for stopping by. Hopefully we shall hear from you again. Keep us in your prayers; you are in ours that the Lord will keep us always faithful in following him.

In Christ,

Timothy Kelly
Abbot of Gethsemani

Well, at least they didn’t shut us down completely! There was hope! Almost immediately, Shipen dashed back his response dated May 9, 1975:

Dear Father Timothy:

Thank you for your letter. We are very much encouraged by your suggestions and feel particularly peaceful when we think of the possibilities you mentioned.

Of course our main interest is in the direct relationship of the Trees to Gethsemani itself. We are happy with what the Mitchums are trying to accomplish in their lives, but don’t feel totally given to that situation. I imagine that with young communities built by their own experiences, that they require somewhat different influences. Two young communities together may present more problems than are necessary, again with all deference to the Families of St. Benedict.

We were offered a similar situation in Allentown, Pennsylvania where we were to come under league with a large Roman Charismatic Community, they giving us our own farm and land; but somehow this just didn’t seem right due to the experimental nature of the other community and ours. Our association with the Cathedral is to allow a certain solidity in our education, and we would look to Gethsemani with the same hopes in the area of contemplation. Living and working in association with the Cathedral has been a great help toward understanding Christian commitment and vocation, and we would be lost without undergoing direct and formal relationships within the church believing that even though the reunion of the church is not directly in sight, that the Lord blesses our attempts to touch in some real and deep hope. I was especially taken by the small Eucharist we had over the new icon in Brother Lavrans hermitage, how strangely unfamiliar it was and even awkward in some ways, but also how filled with wonder I was at the common spirit who somehow made our unwillingness unfamiliar and our hopes to love a reality. This is my deep hope for the future. Realistically I don’t know whether I will be alive then, but I firmly believe that we are all pioneers toward that full reconciliation. I do also believe that at this time in history, we do indeed have to suffer the pain together and we are fully willing to accept any directives required by the Roman Church and the monastery concerning the ecclesiological question. Indeed, it is a point of unity.

I’m not sure where we should go from here but feel you may know. I shall be looking forward to a continued correspondence with you and we do pray for you continually giving thanks to the Lord that he has provided for us such a wonderful brotherhood to help support us in our early days as a community. Thank you especially for the remuneration, it will help immensely in these next few New York months.

We are Yours in Christ,

Shipen Lebzelter

For the next week, we readied ourselves for our weekly concert series, did chores, and fell into our usual routines. I worked most days at the Cathedral gift shop, returning in the afternoons for daily rehearsals. I had just written a new version of Psalm 138 on harp with my usual intertwining melodies and we began the process of orchestrating it.

Saturday, May 10, 1975. This was the opening day of our concert series and it was a beautiful, sunny spring day. There was a fair on the Close for the Cathedral School and also a Diocesan Convention, but in spite of all the publicity and other activities, the concert was sparsely attended (passing of the plate netted only $20). Directly afterwards, we packed up and drove to the Medford Lakes Youth Conference in New Jersey were we performed for 400 rowdy teenagers. The lighting was bad, the crowd was noisy but at least we sold quite a few records afterwards and made $300 (much needed!).

The following day we gave another free afternoon concert at the Metropolitan Art Museum to which, again, barely anyone came. Allegedly, there was supposed to have been all kinds of publicity. There wasn’t and that made it all the more disappointing.

Throughout the next week, Shipen and David dropped in and out of the community as they pleased. Tuesday we were invited to dinner and Compline at Dorian’s apartment. Then on Thursday Shipen drew us all together for a family meeting. He had an important question for us. Could Dorian come and move in with us the following week on a trial basis, and did anyone have any objections? Nobody did, except initially Melody. After a long discussion, she too agreed, reluctantly, only after asking several pointed questions about it. It was an awkward discussion and Shipen seemed to grow tense and upset.

That evening during dinner there was a strained silence followed by a very emotional conversation focused on Shipen’s reaction to the earlier discussion. Shipen was visibly angry saying he felt hostility from some of us over his homosexuality. He felt “attacked by the family” and finally declared that from now on the time from Compline each night until Vigils the next morning was to be “private time” to be used as the person wished. David, of course, agreed enthusiastically. The rest of us said little or nothing. I sensed that trouble was brewing and decided it was better to keep my mouth shut for the time being. I had nothing against homosexuality but what was bothering me was how romantic (and I assumed sexual) relationships had been pulling some members away. If Dorian and Shipen could live within the community as Patricia and Christopher were doing, it seemed to me that would be better for our stability. Personally, I thought that a married couple could be part of a monastic community, be they straight or gay. As far as Dorita was concerned, my feelings were less benevolent - I just wanted her to get lost! If she moved in, I honestly didn’t think I could handle it.

May 16th, Friday. We drove to Cranford, New Jersey to perform at Trinity Church. About 100 people attended and it was a nice, intimate concert in the parish hall. We earned another $300, our standard honorarium fee.

The next day at the Cathedral concert, Carla and Dorita danced and more people were in attendance. The audience was beginning to grow again based on word of mouth and everyone seemed to love the dancing saying it meshed perfectly with our music (donations were a whopping $35). Afterwards, Carla DeSoto and Dorita came over to our apartment and we had a long discussion about our future. It was suggested that we might merge our two groups and possibly live together on a farm. Hmmmm. After they left, David expressed his hope that he and Dorita live together in the Trees. I found this very upsetting and determined that I would talk privately with Dorita later in the week. I could not imagine having their relationship right in my face every day of my life! It still bothered me that Dorita had stolen David from me while we were still engaged and no matter how hard I tried, I remained hurt and resentful about it. Having to live with her in our apartment or on the bus would be unspeakable!

On May 19th we met with our lawyer to discuss legalities about the album and went over details of forming a corporation. Each of us were listed as officers in the corporation. With regard to the record, he suggested we should publish the album ourselves and not sign a contract with Roller Mills.

After the meeting, we visited with a friend, Pam Lawrence, who was going to stay with us for the next ten days. It should have been a day to celebrate but tensions were mounting .After Chapter meeting, there was another huge verbal blow-out. Shipen stormed off to talk with Madeline L’Engle and then disappeared for the rest of the day and night. It was a bad sign. I went over to the Close to plant vegetables and work in my garden. As I hoed, weeded and planted, my mind swirled with whirlpools of worries.

May 21st. This was a day of reckoning. It started normally enough with mass at the Cathedral, breakfast and then a Chapter meeting. David announced at Chapter that our concert at Sacred Heart would have to be moved to the following week, which was when Dorian and Shipen had planned to visit Gethsemani. That didn’t go over well at all and Shipen and David stayed behind arguing after Chapter. I left for work at the gift shop.

When David and Shipen came home for lunch, they called an emergency family meeting. Unfortunately, I was working so it went on without me. (Not good, not good at all!)

Shipen was concerned the family did not trust him and were being disrespectful to him as leader. In essense, Shipen felt the family was not being charitable to Dorian and that Shipen was not being given respect as the leader. This led to someone making a differentiation between family antagonism and individual antagonism. Someone's personal opinion should not be equated with the family's position. Shipen had not been around much lately to show leadership and that when he was, he had only shown irresponsibility so the family’s lack of depending on him for leadership was in part his own fault. Various examples of unleaderly-like behavior were expressed but the matter of family trust was less easily dealt with. The issue had to do with our vows of chastity. Shipen believed the family had accepted his relationship with Dorian as being chaste and had trouble understanding why now it seemed we could trust him so little. Shipen felt condemned, feelings which had led him to question how long he could remain in the Trees. This led to deeper issues of some member's questioning homosexuality and that a gay relationship could be fulfilling in the same way as a heterosexual marriage.

It was a difficult and painful conversation that was headed toward emotional quicksand. It was agreed we needed to be more open with one another and that this should not, like Texarkana, be the last of a series of talks. (We had all felt united at Texarkana and had each commited ourselves to the community without realizing each person's vision of community might be different). The meeting ended with prayer that each of us might learn to love and forgive and be in community. The chronicle entry opined that the community had acted as a community and not simply as Shipen’s disciples.

I had not been at the meeting but I think the meeting was the beginning of a slow but steady divorce between the community and Shipen. His authority had been questioned, he felt accused and not trusted, and now the community had acted on their own, without his leadership - a first. It must have hurt that not everyone supported homosexuality as on par with heterosexuality, further eroding the trust and acceptance between us. I saw him being pulled away from us by other influences in New York City. Were we taking up the reins of leadership he had dropped or were we pushing him away by being disrespectful? At the time, I only knew our small group was floundering and it seemed to me that New York City once again was a siren, singing her powerful, hypnotic songs that would soon might swallow us whole. Naively I clung to the hope that it would all work out, somehow.

May 22, 1975. At chapter meeting we discussed the album, agreeing to use the acetate we already had and send it to pressing and agreeing to have Stephen design the art for the cover. We struggled to come up with ideas on how to pay for pressing copies, and kicked around some possible loan sources (Gethsemani, the Cathedral, friends?). We agreed to work on that. David and Melody kept working on the fall tour, with far too many “no, we’re sorry we aren’t interested at this time” responses coming in. Churches around the country were struggling financially, reining in budgets and trimming expenses, just as the Cathedral was. People around America were feeling pinched financially and as a result, pulling back on their tithing and donations to churches. I was pretty oblivious to what was happening around the world at the time, only aware that it was getting harder to book concerts and that we were struggling to get by.

The Dean had invited us to perform for a special Bicentennial day at the Cathedral. We carried our instruments out onto the front steps of the Cathedral and played for a huge, festive crowd of neighborhood children and friends while Beverly Hall snapped some outstanding photographs. It was great fun and Patricia, as usual, blew bubbles during the rowdier bits, to the sheer delight of the children.

May 23-26th, 1975. The Saturday concert went quite well with Carla and Dorita dancing during Psalm 45, Jesus He Knows and Comfortless. We were all surprised that the pass-the-plate donation added up to $50.00. Later that night Christopher and Patricia flew back to Texas for a two-week visit to tie up some unfinished business and to visit Bruce’s son.

Meanwhile Harroll was visiting more and more often and had asked me to dinner and on several dates. For some reason, I found this charming but he seemed far more infatuated with me than I was with him. I enjoyed his company, just not in a romantic way. Later in the afternoon, Harroll came by and admitted to me that he was falling in love with me. Oh oh. I did my best to put him off, feeling embarrassed and still grieving over my lost relationship with David Lynch. It was funny that Canon West had nothing but compliments and high praise for Harroll (“he is goodness and light”) whereas I wasn’t interested in the least, sigh. What was wrong with me?

May 26, 1975. The next month began a blue period best described as “non-community.” Mary, Melody, Stephen and I tried our best to carry on with daily rituals and services, taking turns cooking for various guests. Yet soon Christopher and Patricia were due to leave for Texas for a two week visit. David was gone even more and Shipen was totally wrapped up in the 101st Street community of Dorian and friends so we saw very little of him except for concerts and meals. It must have been grueling since Shipen would join us at 5:30 a.m. for the day, attend music rehearsals, and dinner, finish with Compline then rush over at night to be with Dorian’s group and then he’d be back again the next morning at 5:30 am for our morning chores and start all over again. It must have been exhausting. Both Melody and I brought up our concerns at Chapter meeting to no avail. Things remained status quo.

Melody left for a ten-day retreat to East Hampton. I grew more and more worried and tried to reach Canon West to seek his advice. Time after time when I called his secretary Ms. Gibbs, she told me he was either too busy to talk or not available. Finally, Melody tried calling him but he simply said he was much too busy to see us at the moment. I grew increasingly alarmed. Things were not going well with The Trees. We needed his help!

May 27th we played at Sacred Heart School at 91st street on the East Side. Driving the bus there along the narrow streets, Shipen grazed the side of a car (oops-left our insurance info on the windshield). We played for 200 well behaved but fidgety little girls with Carla, Dorita and Susan dancing. This was the school Dorita worked at and it had been arranged that we’d be paid $200 – Praise God.

One evening our good friend Jack Walters, a Jesuit, came by for dinner. Mary and I shared our ideas for a farm community and the invitation from Allentown and the possibilities of working or merging with the Omega Dancers. Nothing was decided but it was nice to have another set of ears to kick around our ideas with. Shipen, I suspect, was having doubts about the farm idea. He was pretty quiet and said very little during the meal.

In spite of us, the music was evolving and blossoming. We worked on a new piece with a Steve Reich technique involving long patterns of rhythm with steel drums, drums, xylophone and vocals that slowly changed and undulated. Mary simply admitted that she didn’t like it. I found it fascinating and loved it. Stephen was still hard at work on the album cover. Meanwhile, Father Parks at Trinity Church offered to loan us $1,000 for the initial album pressing – a God send! That solved that problem, praise the Lord.

At chapter meeting on the 30th we got into a long, involved discussion about our future. David suggested he’d like to spend two weeks in July on vacation with Dorita in Vermont and that he would like to use their retreat to pursue the possibility of marriage with her. I had been teasing him about “marriage bells are ringing” but the reality of it was not at all funny to me. I expressed my unhappiness with the “non-state” of our affairs (no pun intended) and the general apathy in the family with people missing offices, sleeping over at other’s houses, not showing up for work, missing meals and in general being irresponsible. Nothing was resolved, and after chapter I marched off upset and went to go clean Mrs. Sullivan’s house and do her husband’s laundry (while she was away recuperating from an operation).

Later on that day, we learned that Canon West had been asked to retire by the Dean and that other’s on staff at the Cathedral had been fired. I was totally shocked! Could that explain the strange “busy-ness” of Canon West and his being so inaccessible of late? Had he gotten wind of upcoming changes at the Cathedral? Unfortunately, our community was in crisis too and in dire need of his intervention and support but he had his own problems to deal with.

Friday evening Harroll came over to see me, even though I’d made a point of avoiding him all week. After a long talk, I tried to ease him into the idea that, unfortunately, though I enjoyed his company, I didn't want to take it any further. He seemed hurt and left exclaiming it wasn’t the first time he’d been hurt and it wouldn’t be the last! Oh boy, that didn’t turn out very well.

May 31st. We performed our Saturday concert at the High Altar along with all the Omega dancers. They wove their dancing throughout the music and nearly 200 people came. It was exciting and we all felt energized with the new synergy created between us. Even without Christopher and Patricia, it was an amazingly powerful performance. (Donations this time $60). Afterwards, Shipen and Dorian left for their planned visit to Gethsemani where they would meet with Father Timothy and Brother Lavrans to discuss our possible future there as well as seek a loan for the pressing of our record, to be repaid as sales came in. Our prayers went with them. Meanwhile, Melody, Mary and I had arranged to go to St. Helena’s on a retreat of our own. When we returned home after the performance, David announced that he’d invited Dorita to stay in our apartment with him while everyone (except Stephen) was away! What? We argued back and forth about, “How can we pretend to be saying we’ve taken vows of chastity?” or some such thing but David assured us it would be above board and all that. Hmmm.

In the chronicle that night I wrote: “How can we continue our experimenting with a vow of chastity, stretching it further and further to meet our own needs until what is left is a dry skeleton of what our community once was. And the wind whistling through the telltale remaining bones…”

June 1-7th. My retreat was very productive filled with time to re-evaluate, prayer, solitude, more prayer and silence. I personally renewed my commitment to the community, to my vows and to our life together. We all returned to the apartment on the 7th, - Christopher and Patricia returned from Texas, and Shipen and Dorian drove back from Gethsemani on Saturday. We gave our afternoon concert at the Cathedral on the 7th. The crowd was enthusiastic and had continued to grow to overflowing, probably by word of mouth. (Plate donations $50). Though internally we remained bruised and battered, curiously the music flourished.

Meanwhile, things were going crazy at the Cathedral and elsewhere in the Episcopal Church. It seemed that the Cathedral had been besieged with irate phone calls, telegrams and messages protesting the Dean’s forced retirement of Canon West. Churches were threatening to withdraw their support of the diocese, friends from around the world were up in arms, and Canon West himself would have handed in his resignation except that Bishop Donegan refused to allow him to! The dean had made a big mistake! Support for Canon West was pouring in from convents, monasteries, churches, priests, ambassadors, princes, presidents, and even the Queen of England. Many, many people were inundating the Dean with their support for Canon West. John Fischer put it well when he said, “What can we do without him? He’s the father of this cathedral and is even the Bishop’s confessor as well as all of ours.” But we still worried that the dean might take away his office and leave him an honorary “paper” title. Meanwhile the trustees met all day long trying to unscramble the mess and to figure out what to do about their financial crisis. I thought the whole thing stunk!

As for our community, we had received inquiries from prospective novitiates, from two women - Diane and Ann (who had attended our concert) both in their early twenties. At chapter, we talked about their request to visit and perhaps join, and agreed that it might be the Lord’s will. We decided that Mary would write them back to invite them to visit, then see what happened from there. Mary was fast becoming our Mistress of Guests, arranging for many friends and people to come for dinner or to visit, and corresponding faithfully with all of them. For example, we’d had an inquiry from an Indian fellow named Jerry, and Mary arranged for him to come by one Sunday to teach us more about authentic Indian music (fascinating).

June 8-14, 1975. Things at the Cathedral remained in an uproar with various staff having been fired along with other major changes. Canon Dennis gave a stinging sermon in reaction to the firing of his secretary, Betty Walters and it was easy to read between the lines of his message. Canon West meanwhile was still holding his own.

On Sunday we had a long, very positive family meeting. Shipen related what had happened during their visit at Gethsemani. Abbot Timothy was receptive to the idea of our coming to “live” in contemplative life over the summer and possibly longer. Ideas were discussed which he promised to take back and present to their chapter. He promised to let us know whether and if we could establish a formal relationship with Gethsemani. Hurrah! How awesome that would be! Brother Lavrans had been very excited about designing costumes for the new Psalm Cycle and new Christ Tree. At first he had wild ideas about robots, masks and silver gowns but eventually, they evolved into some tamer proposals. Next, we talked about ways to earn more money and kicked around the idea of everyone getting part time jobs. It was agreed we would propose this to Canon West. I was working almost full time at the gift shop and Melody was being paid to do calligraphy for the Cathedral. Still we needed more than our two meager salaries brought in.

We received news that there was some kind of illness with Stephen’s family back home. Christopher and Patricia Gambill would be flying back to NYC, and then brother Stephen would go to Texas to do his best to help out. Things had been very somber and a bit too serious since they had been gone and I was eager to have Patricia back. I loved how she was so silly and funny, gentle and kind hearted. I loved how she was able to make us all laugh and seemed to be able to tease Shipen in a way that only she and Claudia could. I had missed Christopher’s quiet strength and sensibility. He had a way of listening carefully and weighing everything that was said before giving what I found to be very sensible, unemotional observations. He could make clear judgments about things without getting as hurt or wounded as the rest of us seemed to.

When Christopher and Patricia returned, I immediately noticed how the laughter and light-hearted joking returned to our overly somber household. Maybe it was because of their love for each other or maybe it was just because of who they were, but I was relieved to see the mood of our family shift and lighten. That night I prayed that they would affect and change us more than we would them. I prayed that our scars, and millions of small daily unkindnesses would never hurt them or drive them away. I asked God to once again help us be a loving, happy, peaceful family.

June 14th. The Saturday concert sans dancers was more intimate and everything “clicked”. I felt swept into a spiritual experience and the connection we made with the 70 people there was almost tangible. Some came over to our apartment afterwards for drinks and conversation. In the offering plate was $80, fresh flowers and some homemade bread. Wow! In the evening Shipen went to help Dorian pack up his books and clothing since he would be moving in with us the next day. David Lynch went to help Dorita move to her new apartment in the east 70’s.

June 15, 1975. "Dorian Gregg" moved into our community, after a great deal of prayer, discussion and a certain amount of reluctance by a few members. However, as walked into the apartment with two overstuffed duffel bags of belongings, a twinkle in his eyes and a quizzical smile on his face, we welcomed him knowing he had come for the same odd reason we all had, he was called. In the chronicle I wrote: “The tree gnarls and twists, sending out a new fragile branch to reach out, trying to embrace the sky.”

I wondered if it would be harder for both Dorian and Shipen to live so closely together in the community with the rest of us. There was still some lingering antagonism from those in the family who I perceived as being somewhat homophobic. (Given our vow of chastity, it shouldn’t have made a difference to others anyway but what did I know). More importantly, placing their relationship within the context of our community would bring a new dynamic to their relationship. Privately, I hoped it would bring back the Shipen I had known in the past, in the days before we’d returned to the city.

The morning following Dorian’s arrival, at chapter we had a long discussion about vocations and our common vocation as liturgical musicians. Dorian said he felt called to continue his vocation as a writer and was uncertain about joining us in performing our music. We talked about our common discipline of music and what that meant as a means of worship and service to the Church and about unity of focus in the music. Melody shared that her long-term desire was to eventually withdraw from the music and pursue her PhD in geology. On the heels of this revelation, Patricia voiced her interest in pursuing a career in nursing. So with Dorian’s entrance into the community, suddenly we were exploring the idea of different vocations that could eventually separate us and, in my opinion, destroy our common gift and witness of music. We agreed to pray about possibly redefining our purpose and what changes God might be calling us to make. Personally, I didn’t think any of us had to leave. It seemed like going to school or writing books could easily be worked into our community life. I thought it would be a major mistake to abandon our gift of music. Alarmed, I turned my worries over to God in prayer.

June 16, 1975. We arrived for our meeting with Canon West after the 7:15 morning prayer and mass, eager to finally be meeting with him. As we sat down in St. Savior’s chapel, he turned and swept off without a word. David Lynch rushed after him reminding him of our meeting. His terse reply as he kept walking was, “I can’t possibly see you! It was a mistake to arrange it for this morning. I simply cannot see you today!” Oh, no audience with the wizard, and this was the ninth time he had put off seeing us! “Maybe Wednesday” was what he tossed over his shoulder as he left the room. Well!

We packed up our instruments into a van and Christopher’s car and drove to Trinity Church where we began rehearsing with the Omega dancers for the 12:00 mass. After the service, Father Parks was elated as we munched on delicious sandwiches with Father Parks, Jerry and Jean Forest. They immediately struck $300 off our debt and suggested that we give two more concerts to work off the remainder of our debt of $700. (They had loaned us $1,000 so we could do an initial record pressing). Agreed! Jean expressed concern that things at the Cathedral seemed very nebulous and one sided, that we were not being properly recognized and supported. She suggested that there should be some kind of official recognition. We tossed around the idea of being artists in residence at Trinity since they were looking for a resident Christian community such as ours. We were flattered and said we’d pray about it. We drove home once again excited about future possibilities. Shipen prepared one of his delectable meals while I went over to David and Kateri’s for dinner. They had arranged a blind date for me with someone named Tim. I don’t even recall how it went since I wrote nothing about it in the chronicles. Probably not very well since there is no further mention of anyone named Tim.

June 17th-21st. On Tuesday we dressed in our peach colored costumes and set up and played in St. Saviors chapel. NBC taped the first four minutes of Psalm 45 for an upcoming television segment. We were pleased for the publicity and the taping went quite well.

Meanwhile money problems continued to weigh heavily on our minds. We still had my weekly paycheck and Patricia had just gotten a tax refund, but we were living hand to mouth. We had been much more frugal so that our weekly grocery bill was down to $70 a week instead of the usual $110. We were supplementing our beans and rice diet with fresh vegetables from my garden (green beans, peas, radishes, and lettuce). We discussed whether or not to ask for money in our newsletter and Patricia and Mary pointed out they thought it was akin to begging. Others of us saw nothing wrong with asking for help. Finally we agreed to write Gethsemani and ask for their financial help.

Sadly, we had just heard from Brother Lavrans that after the chapter meeting, the brothers had decided that we could not come to Gethsemani at the present time, but maybe some time in the future, maybe next summer or spring. Abbott Timothy explained this in more detail saying they were still open to questioning their cloistered status and were open to groups coming to visit, but that they would stay cloistered for the time being. Since none of us could envision them not cloistered, the news was deeply disappointing. Shipen wrote back to the Abbott, in his typically melodramatic fashion:

Dear Father Timothy:

The Trees very much appreciated your response to our request to be able to come into practical prayer union with Gethsemani, and that you so promptly took the matter to heart and to the heart of the community. From our own standpoint we so very well understand the difficulties involved, but I sensed from your letter a note of hopefulness and encouragement. I believe the year to follow will deepen and increase our awareness of all the ramifications from a practical to a philosophical possibility. At any rate we continue to feel extremely close to you in prayer support as well as in physical proximity as our family chapel is graced by the icons so lovingly given to us by Brother Lavrans. They are our images of the Saints and our Lord, but by the fact that they are represented on a two dimensional plane, Gethsemani is also present during our offices. This in itself is more than we could have hoped for, and so from here, indeed it is a matter of finding the Spirit’s purpose for bringing these issues before us.

Personally I was blessed more than I could have desired by your attention to the matter, and even though I approached in fear, my fear was dispelled by the very reason we are drawn to Gethsemani; the love of the brothers.

From the beginning of the Trees Group in a small attic in lower Manhattan through the years of bus traveling and searching and finding our Lord represented in such array we continued to carry with us an increasing sense of crisis in the world and also in the church. We began to reflect on what would be left standing if everything we know was subtracted from us. We knew then that our Lord and his faithful were the source and the means of mercy to a confusing world and a world that has grown to accept chaos as a valid way of life. But in danger, it is not this valid way of life that will save souls, but the knowledge and presence of our Lord.

Living in New York (now going bankrupt), and traveling through a nation faced with the loss of its luxury, we have been drawn both through our apostolate and in our private family prayers to see the tremendous importance of the interdepency of the faithful body of Christ, a network of prayer, the fundamental reality of our faith as an active force that comes to the heart of the crisis and begins it healing. Gethsemani, as already involved here, becomes our greatest hope on the human plane, and because of this we feel called to you in this area of prayer and weeping. Practicality seems to represent a substantial commitment. Something more than board talk, something much more said in silence, but visible. This is the substance of our prayer for the coming year. The year of reconciliation.

The crisis continues here at the Cathedral since it has been forced to cut back by the economic circumstances here and has been forced to send many of its employees out into a city where employment is virtually impossible. Needless to say it cannot physically give any support to us, but it has been able to cushion our debt and to allow us to continue on a charge basis to increase our debt. It is its only option toward us, and one we are grateful for but which adds greater weight to our conscience every day.

We became startlingly aware of the church crisis upon our return to New York after this past tour. We had assumed that we would find enough concert requests to ride us through the summer as happened in the past two years. And so we used the funds gained on that tour to produce the record. To our horror we now find that the New York area churches are not spending any money on the arts this summer, and what with outside employment as it is, we ourselves are experiencing the very crisis of impossibility. Even Trinity Church (one of the richest in the world) is asking us to perform charity concerts this summer, and every request for concerts has asked that we do it for no money. [Well THAT was a stretch since Trinity loaned us $1,000 for the album and we were returning the favor by performing there three times in lieu of our usual honorarium but Shipen neglected to include this in his letter.] We have responded to these requests affirmatively trying not to think of our own needs, but they have come crashing down upon us.

At the end of your letter you seemed to sense this and in my shyness I had at first decided not to approach you for any physical support. This mainly because I didn’t want to cloud the main issues at hand, or turn them into what they were not. Admittedly physical crisis was on my mind when I came to Gethsemani, but I was confused because I knew that wasn’t why I had come. It took the prayer vigil at Lav’s hermitage to show me the reasons that prompted my seeing you. All the confused lines of thought I had come with straightened out at the feet of our Lord, and I was at peace.

The bleakness of the coming few months in which there is no visible income includes monies for: completion of the record album and cassettes, bus and car insurance, apartment rent for August, food and physical necessities, repairs on the bus for the September tour. A sizeable burden for us. It is at times like these that I wish we had an earning commodity other than our art, but we seem to be directly plugged into the liturgical aspect of the church and are at her mercy.

Because of this we will ask you a loan of $2,000, which we have projected will allow us to exist until the record album goes into distribution. When this happens we pray that the funds spent on the production ($3,500) will be recouped. But it will not be until the second pressing of 2000 records that we can anticipate paying back our debts. At this point our outstanding debts are $4,000 to the Cathedral and $500 to the Bishop of New York, plus whatever we incur over these next few months. One tends to get that sinking feeling as patrons to our kind of creative work seem to grow less and less. Yet the Lord asks us to continue. We have already been denied food stamps and Medicaid for Melody’s ulcer (now dangerously out of hand), our overhead so large as not to afford hospital insurance. We indeed live from day to day by the Lord’s grace and hope that our request is not a breach of faith, and above all, not a burden for you.

Again thank you Father Timothy for your clarity of vision and concern, we have all been blessed beyond measure.

We are Yours in Christ,

Shipen Lebzelter, The Trees

Wednesday, June 18th. Finally, finally Canon West deigned to meet with us in St. James Chapel. He lectured us on obedience, poverty, chastity, the Rule and our need to think hard about the idea of a Superior. We told him of our need for food stamps, money and to just get out of the apartment. He asked each of us to write a page on our ideas for a Superior and The Rule and then give them to him. What did he know that we didn’t? Was he implying something about Shipen that we didn’t know? Or was he merely asking us to formalize the role Shipen had always played? We asked again about getting jobs and he insisted it wouldn’t be a good idea unless all of us got jobs. (Hmmmm, but wasn’t I already the only one working, so that didn’t make sense!) So for the time being the music would have to continue to support us. David Lynch said after we left that Canon West had said the same thing two years ago. I thought it was a good meeting nevertheless. At least he met with us.

On June 21, 1975, we sent out a letter to everyone on our mailing list, updating them on our lives:

Dear Friends

Much has happened to the family since the Christmas Newsletter. Patricia and Christopher (Bruce) Gambill joined us in January as the first married couple in the Trees. Christopher, who has known the Community since its earliest days, was a professional musician before joining us. He plays guitar organ and dulcimer and recently has taken up Scots Chanter. Patricia earned an Associate of the Arts degree before joining the Community and she is interested in pursuing a B.S. in nursing. Though not a musician by profession, Patricia has added percussion and dance to THE CHRIST TREE and has the gift of tackling new endeavors with enthusiasm and usually with the phrase, “Let’s give it the old college try!”

The winter tour was a long one, covering 8,200 miles and 3 ½ months. We left New York in the dead of winter and in the middle of a snow storm on January 19th. The tour meandered down the East Coast as far as Orlando, Florida. We then broke for two weeks vacation in Florida and continued on to Texas, Tennessee and Michigan before returning to the city on May 2nd.

There were many interesting people and places on the southern tour and hardly space to describe them all or to describe the new faces, old friends and family gatherings we enjoyed on the trip. The last two weeks of the tour are worthy of note, however and we would like to share our experiences with you. The Trappists at Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky, have been friends of the Community since its first pilgrimage out of New York and we are grateful we were able to spend a few days with them on this tour. Our community has felt an increasing awareness of its own need for contemplation; the silence and order of the Monastery came to us as rain after a drought.

The last week before returning to New York was spent recording at The Roller Mills Studio in Glen Arbor, Michigan. There, we recorded a 16 track master tape, the basis of a stereo record album which is now being pressed. The Community is publishing and distributing this first recording of THE CHRIST TREE itself, and we are pleased with the test pressing we’ve listened to. We expect that the record will be out about July 15th and we have begun taking orders for it. We are enclosing an order blank that explains taxation and handling charges in detail. We hope that you will enjoy the album as much as we’ve enjoyed producing it.

Which brings us to the more sober part of this letter. We have been very busy at everything since returning to the City – except giving concerts. Churches that thought they might be able to have us have been unable to do so and as summer creeps on, the prospects of concerts diminish. We’ve tied up our winter tour earnings in pressing the record and in paying our bus debt, and since we receive no financial support from the Cathedral, we face a very slim summer. Melody has had recurring ulcer problems and we also face the possibility of her needing major surgery. (We are tax-exempt).

The most recent news is that Dorian Gregg joined the Trees just before this newsletter was published. He is a graduate of Columbia University and a writer-poet. He has published his poetry in a couple of magazines and hopes to continue writing in the Community. At present he does not feel called to be part of the music and so the Community finds its corporate calling is broadening. With all good wishes for a safe and happy summer, We are, Yours in Christ, THE TREES.

We sent out our appeal, hoping it might garner some much needed funds, and, of course, orders for the record. It felt awkward to be begging so strenuously, but there seemed no other solution. Unfortunately, we had nowhere else to turn.

Meanwhile, later in the week we were invited over to dinner by Tom and Caroline Eddy who had a lovely place on the Cathedral Close in one of the building spaces they had renovated. During renovations, they had uncovered beautiful old brick walls, giving it almost a loft feel. Ficus and dozens of plants were placed artfully around the room along with various antiques and street-finds, all seemingly perfect for the space. Tom and Caroline had prepared a dinner of spaghetti, garlic bread and a huge multi vegetable salad with fresh vegetables and lettuce from their garden on the close, just next to mine. We ate and ate until we were all sprawled out on the floor in various positions with Harroll the only one still sitting at the end of the table eating his way through his fourth serving. Outside there was a fabulous summer thunderstorm with brilliant yellow flashes of lightning and an eerie color to the sky outside that turned the trees and clouds a strange kind of green. I almost forgot we were in the middle of New York City.

Saturday’s concert at the Cathedral was poorly attended. Afterwards, Shipen flew home for a week to visit his parents while Stephen still remained in Abilene with his family. With both of them gone, I thought the music sounded hollow and strangely empty.