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.

New Novices

Upon our return from the Finger Lakes Conference, we met with Canon West to discuss three possible new novitiates: Sister L., "Melody" and Mary McCutcheon, all of whom were considering joining our community. Canon West had been steadily urging us to find some young, energetic, sane new novices for our community. We agreed, realizing new blood was important to our mental and spiritual health. Mary McCutcheon had been corresponding and coming for short visits to explore God’s will. She drove in to visit and stay with us for the first week of July and was just in time for a classic Tree’s birthday celebration with Shipen’s cake dubbed “The Peach that passeth all Understanding” baked for Stephen’s birthday.

Meanwhile, Melody was contemplating leaving another monastic religious community and either entering secular life or joining our community. Canon West continued to help them work through various issues as all of us sought God’s will in the matter. Melody was living with friends and thinking about moving in either after our tour or before it, depending on whether or not she would teach school during the upcoming school year. We were only too aware of how difficult it was to live in our community. It was not as idyllic a life as it first might appear! One needed strong nerves, a thick skin and a healthy self esteem in order to survive the high level of tension caused by our varying degrees of ongoing fighting and bickering. It was paramount that they be called by God to join the Trees rather than being enticed by personal desires.

The second week in July, Sister L. decided she was not called to be a Tree and made plans to leave the City on the 9th. Before she left, she gave me her Evening Prayer Book, which had been given to her by her godmother, Madeline Franklin L’Engle. I cherished it (and still have it)! We put together a surprise celebration dinner with staff and friends and bought her a sleeping bag, poncho and knapsack for her journeys wherever they might be. Shipen and Stephen created a special cake called “Plum Ridiculous.” Sister L. was escorted to “the pit” (the area in the front room with staggered platforms that created a pit in the middle) and told to keep her eyes closed. I walked in wearing her new poncho and knapsack with her sleeping bag tucked under one arm. She flicked open her eyes laughing heartily and beamed with delight. After cake and ice cream, someone put on some Judi Collin’s music and I could barely keep from crying. Just as the record finished, Melody stood up and announced she had something important to tell us. All eyes turned to her as we waited expectantly. Was she going on a trip? Was she returning to the convent?

In a quiet voice, Melody said she would like to live with us, at least for a while, and would this be okay? She admitted she was still uncertain whether she should return to teaching in the fall but she wanted to give our community life a try. Her plan was to meet with Canon West to talk it over, but before she did, how did we feel? Immediately we responded with a chorus of agreement. "Yes!" "Great!" "How wonderful!" Then suddenly everyone was hugging, talking excitedly, welcoming Melody and saying goodbye to Sister L. It was all very emotional.

In July, a small Christian troupe of modern dancers called the Omega dancers led by Carla DeSoto and Paula Duthette attended one of our Saturday afternoon Cathedral concerts. Almost immediately we saw the possibility of a creative marriage of our disciplines. We kicked around the idea of working together after our summer tour. Little did I know that this chance meeting would set into motion a chain of events that would drastically affect my impending marriage to David Lynch. But more on that later...

On July 17, 1974 we trooped over late at night to St. Saviors chapel in the Cathedral to tape our concert free of the usual visiting tourists and other noisy interruptions. Arthur Howard and Roger wanted to use the music for a documentary film they were considering doing about the Cathedral. Three hours later it was nearly midnight when the taping was completed and we were pretty wiped out. Songs we performed were: Psalm 45, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, Jesus He Knows, I Will not leave you Comfortless, the Banjo song (Beard), Chant for Pentecost, Glory be to Jesus, I Wander, Bird Song and Psalm 42.

Throughout the month of July we continued performing “The Christ Tree”, a musical meditation at 3pm each Saturday. For me it had become a worship experience and a way to find unity through the music.

In August, both Melody and Mary McCutcheon finalized plans to officially joined our crazy-quilt family. Both met first with Canon West to make sure they knew what this kind of life entailed. We also met with him, trying to be sure this was the right decision all the way around.

Melody was struggling through a difficult time in her life as she transitioned from a traditional monastic existence to our odd blend of worldly and non-worldly life. She was brilliant and strong willed, independent and tough in many ways. She could stand up to criticism and eagerly moved into areas that had previously been restricted to the male domain. Nothing phased Melody. One thing she was determined to learn was how to drive our new bus, a difficult task for anyone with its temperamental gears that required double clutching and other fancy footwork. And she did! Furthermore, she regularly went toe to toe with Shipen in long arguments about theology, doctrine, or the topic of the day. I was constantly amazed at her intelligence, tenacity and fortitude. With Canon West’s blessing, Melody decided to join us in Boston during our tour.

On July 25, 1974 we ran through the state of our finances and David Lynch laid out all our income and expenses. After going over everything, what upset Shipen the most was that half of our income for the entire year had gone to pay off our debt to the Cathedral, crippling us from being able to save any money to purchase a bus. Without a bus, the tour coming up in two weeks would be impossible. We had exhausted all avenues of possible loans or grants. None of volunteering at the Cathedral was being reciprocated financially in any way. We had hoped the Cathedral would offer us some kind of assistance, but they had their own financial troubles so this was not to be. David had contacted Spike, from whom we bought our first bus, and he had several busses for sale. The only one in our ballpark was one for $7,800. We decided to redouble our efforts to obtain money somehow, even go to a bank to see if we could qualify. What else could we do?

Meanwhile, we worked “feverishly” to try to finish the new Psalm 44 in time for the tour. Our final Saturday afternoon concert was attended by all our faithful following: Violet Drakes, Joyce Klannit, Father Savoy, Arthur Eaton, Bobby, Ken and all the Omega dancers.

By this time Canon West had spent months trying to shape us into a monastic community, continuously examining and revising every tiny detail of our life. He met with us at length about when we ate, when we slept, when we practiced, going over our daily schedule with a fine toothed comb. He examined our jobs, vows, clothing, food, even the beds we slept on! He wanted our “beds” to be as austere as possible and had Shipen build a series of small platforms (a variation on loft beds) attached to one another. Each mattress was a four-inch piece of foam rubber that I found quite comfortable. This allowed us to squeeze in many beds into the small bedrooms in our apartment. Canon West wanted to make sure that they were adequate but that every one was the same and not too luxurious.

Loft beds in the women's room

During our weekly meeting with him, he recommended that David and I wait until we could find a place to get married (whatever that meant). Did he sense we were drifting apart? Did he know more than I did as a result of David’s confessions to him? I recall having mixed feelings of both frustration and relief. I would just have to wait once again. He advised that in the fall all of us should be confirmed and/or become lay readers. Finally, he suggested after we returned that he would like to hold a weekly mass in the chapel in our apartment, followed by breakfast and then he would give us a weekly teaching. However, first he’d have to clear it with the bishop.

One week before the tour and still no bus! We were growing anxious. This was getting ridiculous! The chronicle entry captures our mood:

August 2nd was a black day. In spite of months of hounding Chauncy for money and
being told “yes, the Cathedral would help, it seems that all hopes were being
pinned on a woman who said “no” to the idea of giving us a loan. Melody came to dinner only to encounter a very gloomy family. No bank would give us a loan…even at 12%…and Spike’s company is 20% or something crazy. Saturday was concertless but not disconcerting. Shipen called Father Herlong, who was polite but moneyless. He rather “pastored” Shipen, which is what Father West did last night to Shipen’s parents when they phoned Father West after calling us. We tried various other would-be wealth sources, including Madeline. Rather hopeless, thought, it seems, unless the Bishop is willing to help. Spike does have a 1954 diesel for $3,500, old style body but good engine. With insurance, etc. we’d need $4,200 to buy it. Canon Johnson reiterated the idea of visiting the Bishop after Mass at the Cathedral. Father West, bless his bald head, was away. We decided to hold a “sit in” in the Bishop’s office Monday when he returns from the Cape.

The sit in three days later worked! The Bishop agreed to loan us money from his discretionary fund in the amount of $1,700 with interest of course. Shipen then visited Trinity Church and the rector agreed to grant us $2,000. Chauncy reluctantly agreed to match what Trinity offered. Then finally Shipen called Father Herlong who offered to loan us $1,000 but mums the word since Father Parks wanted to tell us himself tomorrow. Praise God! He came through in the nick of time! Shipen left for Boston to pick up the “new” 1954 GMC diesel bus (all we could afford) with just two days to learn how to drive it, get it registered, drive it back, and load up for the tour! [end of excerpt]

Our second bus that we later named Athanasius

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Shipen had called his father to complain about the fact that the Bishop had promised to help us buy a new bus, but nothing was happening. In an interview before his death, Shipen’s father (Paul Lebzelter) explains how he helped in getting the bus:

“Did you ever hear the story on that? Well, Bill had this group in New York and they were a dedicated bunch of kids, and they wanted to get out and spread the word, spread the Gospel and…the Bishop, he was a high muckey-muck in the church…. anyway, he had promised them that he would get a bus for them and they could outfit it and they could go on the road, do whatever they wanted to do. But he promised them a bus. Not a new one, an old one that they could convert and that was reliable. And he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, and they kept pushing him and pushing him, and they looked like they were gonna break up. Finally Bill (Shipen) called me one day and said, “Dad, I don’t know what to do. The Bishop promised us this bus.” So I got a few drinks in me and I said, “I’m gonna call that S.O.B. whether he’s a Bishop or what he is, I’m gonna read him the riot act.” So I finally had enough nerve to call him. Mother’d gone to bed. Got ahold of him, told him who I was. I said, “I want to tell you something. You’re a Bishop and you’re a man of the cloth, and you believe in God and you do all this and that, and you made a promise to my son and his group about buying a bus.” I said, “Now where the hell is the bus. You’ve been talking about it for six months and you haven’t done a thing.” He didn’t say a word. Finally he said, “Well, I guess maybe you’re right.” I said, “I know I’m right.” Anyway, the conversation ended. I thought, “Oh, God, I shouldn’t have done that, that was a mistake, and I shouldn’t’ve had that last drink.” I didn’t have that much anyway. But anyway, about noon the next day, Bill called. He said, “We got our bus, Dad!” He really got off his you know-what and got that bus for’em…” [excerpt from pg. 474 of a book written by Michael Huey on his and Shipen’s family genealogy and history).

So at long last we did get our bus, and thank God for Shipen’s Dad!

On August 7th, while Shipen was off in Boston picking up the bus, Mary McCutcheon finally arrived. I found Mary to be wholesome, clean cut, innocent and unassuming, without a devious or unkind bone in her body. To me, she was a breath of fresh air with her quiet and gentle ways. I had the impression she was a born contemplative.

Mary painting our new bus

Mary stepped in to a whirlwind of activity, as we prepared to leave. She was a real trooper and immediately did whatever she could to help out. The day before the New England tour, Shipen pulled up around noon with the new bus, our “home” away from home for the next two years. When he parked the bus, we noticed the entire bus began leaning to one side. How odd! Shipen assured us it was just that the bellows (like balloons) needed adjusting. We took her around the block for a spin, then loaded her up with pots, pans, food, books, instruments, foam pads, sleeping bags, knapsacks. Then each of us climbed on board and we were off to the Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, New York. The folk festival was billed as having “mountain magic, dulcimers and Shakespeare.” Within a few miles of the grounds, we parked our crooked bus at a rest stop to sleep for the night.

The New England tour lasted roughly two months from August 10, 1974 to October 14th and was to take us through New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Canada.