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.

Twenty Seven Faults

“Deep is calling unto deep
as your cataracts roar
all your rushing waves, your breakers
have rolled over me…

…Why so downcast my soul
Why do you sigh within me…
From the Trees version of Psalm 43

On August 25, 1975, when we returned from our vacations, I felt renewed and eager to get ready for the fall tour. I was in for the shock of my life! On Tuesday night, Shipen somberly called a family meeting. He announced that he had been through a long struggle and depression over the summer and had realized that we were a total mess. He stated he felt he was no longer respected as a leader and that the family was no longer united or one in thought as we had been previously. What? He said he had spoken with Canon West and had decided that on December 1st he would determine whether he was going to disband the Trees or not! This would be HIS decision and he would make it according to whether or not we had changed. What in the world? He then proceeded to read from a long list of 27 faults that he saw in the rest of us. (I do not have a copy of that horrible list however, I vaguely recall they were things like: irresponsible, lazy, judgmental or rebellious of his authority). As he droned on and on with one fault after another, the rest of us sat in stunned silence, totally amazed and in shock. When he finished reading, the only sounds that could be heard for a long time were Mary, Patricia and I crying softly. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

Finally, Mary, Melody and others started pleading with him. It was true that there were problems but disbanding the group should be a joint decision. We begged and argued, trying to be logical and honest but after three long hours of pleading, he still would not budge. Shipen firmly insisted he would wait until December 1st to see if our attitudes had changed and then he would make his decision. He then stated that the music would cease in January and that there would be no Florida or winter tour as we had planned. Was he crazy? Even more shocked, we sat in stunned disbelief. What on earth was going on here?

Once again Mary and Melody tried to reason with Shipen that always in the past we had come to our decisions as a community. Melody pointed out that since Shipen had shunned his duties as leader over the summer, that he had no right to come out with an uncompromising statement like “the music will cease.” All of us agreed that if the music was to end, we should have some say in the matter (all agreed except Dorian and Shipen that is. I suspect they had already had some long, private conversations about it). In the end, Shipen stood firm, and finished the meeting by insisting that we must start to shape up immediately. After he and Dorian strode off, the rest of us sat in silence for a long time, numb, saddened and in shock. So much for returning refreshed and ready to begin anew! Was that why Canon West wouldn’t meet with us? Had Shipen been filling his head with strange ideas?

August 28-30th. We had concerts to give regardless of how dysfunctional we allegedly were. We packed up the bus and drove to New Jersey to lead a series of workshops and a concert at a youth retreat. I went through the motions during the concert but my heart was heavy with the weight of Shipen’s stinging rebuke and the impending destruction of our musical ministry and the Trees family as I had known and loved it. For three days I tried to figure out what in the world Shipen was talking about, trying to examine each “fault” prayerfully and figure out what I or anyone else was doing wrong. No matter how much I prayed, it just made no sense to me and as a result I didn’t see what I could do to improve. I had the sense I was trapped in someone else’s nightmare and I had no control over what was happening! Shipen was withdrawn and all of us seemed to pull inside ourselves, trying to come to terms with what had happened. One thing was clear to me - it was time for soul searching and self-assessment. Each one of us had better do our utmost to improve ourselves immediately to avert an impending disaster. We drove back to the City on Friday. Dorian, Shipen and David immediately disappeared for the weekend. The rest of us who remained praying fervently for healing.

August 31, 1975. Despite everything, we threw a birthday party for Shipen - this time with an Asian/Balinese theme. We decorated the apartment with banners in Japanese and whipped up a tasty Japanese dinner. Though we tried hard to make it the usual fun, festive Trees celebration, the mood was a bit subdued, colored by the week's events.

Shipen and Dorian at Shipen's birthday party

Dorita dancing at Shipen's party

Jack joined us for the evening

September 2, 1975. Over the weekend, David proposed to Dorita and she accepted. He bought her a ring and she, likewise, bought one for him that he immediately wore on his pinkie finger. He met with Canon West about their engagement plans and also discussed his ideas for a farm ministry. I think I was too wrapped up in my worries about the possible demise of the Trees to be thinking much about David and Dorita. I know I was still jealous and annoyed about their relationship but had grown resigned to the fact that they were in love so I just better get over it.

September 3, 1975. The mood in the apartment was heavy and somber. I met with Canon West to talk about what had happened and seek his advice. In pain and confusion I poured out my heart to him. What had caused this? What could we do? What did he advise? He pointed out that no one could force the communities dissolution but it was clear that Shipen was not happy. He told me no one should be coerced into staying somewhere they didn’t want to be. He suggested we might have to let Shipen go and then go about electing a new leader. I found the whole idea of losing Shipen deeply disturbing and I determined that I would do whatever I could to correct my own faults and try to turn things around for the family. Then Shipen would have no reason for leaving.

Wrapped up in dark, gloomy thoughts I trudged back to the apartment, my mind racing with bleak scenarios as I washed and folded 8 loads of laundry down in the dank basement of the apartment building. When I re-entered our apartment, it was eerily still. Melody was curled up in her loft bed resting and Mary was quietly putting away groceries with a grim, determined look on her face. From the men’s bedroom I could hear the sporadic sound of Stephen pecking away at the typewriter. Each lost in our own thoughts, we went about the business of sewing, cooking, mailing out records and trying to get last minute things ready for the fall tour that was only two days away. Miraculously, everyone showed up for rehearsal from 3:30 until 5:15 and we focused on working Dorian into the concert. This was followed by Vespers and dinner with a number of guests. After dinner, Mary showed us an excellent slide show she had put together for use in workshop presentations and schools (or was it her own way of demonstrating the power of our ministry?)

After our visitors left, we made the unfortunate mistake of trying to have another family meeting. It began with the question of what to tell the public about our future? As gently and tactfully as possible, Mary asked Shipen to refrain from saying our group was disbanding or that our musical ministry was over, especially during his speech at the beginning of each concert. Shipen fired back angrily insisting he must be free to be honest and tell them the truth. Okay, never mind, on to the next topic. We then brought up the problem of our Cathedral debt and the importance of paying this off. The arguments flew back and forth about our obligation to make payments whether we liked it or not. We had signed paperwork committing us to pay it off. As angry words were tossed about I felt my stomach twisting into knots. Finally the meeting broke up and everyone took off, tense and upset. NOT a good sign at all. I went straight to bed. I lay in my bunk, distressed and upset, praying once again. God, please work a miracle and bring healing to our family.

September 4, 1975. Mary, Stephen and I rose early and attended the Dean’s mass. Melody was still feeling ill and Shipen, Dorian and David were incognito so it was just the three of us who sang “Come Holy Ghost”. The Dean pulled us aside afterwards and invited us all to meet with him later in the day. We spent most of the day packing up the bus and preparing for the tour that would begin the next day.

Later that afternoon, seven sad Trees gathered in Dean Morton’s office, sitting around a huge, round oak table. The dean kicked things off asking us to fill him in on what was going on? Immediately Shipen launched into a monologue insisting it was time for each of us to be more independent so we could pursue our own dreams. That might mean going back to school, pursuing a career in dance, starting a farm in the country or whatever. Then he flatly stated that in January we would cease all public music and by December each of us would have to decide what we were going to do.

On hearing this, the Dean begged him to reconsider. I had the impression he was giving the dramatic performance of his life as he emphatically praised our music and how it was a gift that should not be laid down lightly! With his eyes fairly glowing and arms gesturing expansively, he emphasized how he wanted us to feel a part of the Cathedral, how he loved us and how crucial it was for us to be part of the Cathedral family. He assured us it would be an important, successful year for the Cathedral as there were all sorts of new avenues for our music opening up. He pulled out the stops praising our record, the importance of our part in the Spirit of 76 and our contributions as part of the Cathedral family. It was a wonderful environment for us to grow and be part of. There were all kinds of new tour possibilities and if need be he assured us he would help with funds! Shipen responded that he felt that he supported and wanted to be a part of the Cathedral and a ministry to New York City but he felt that “other Trees” were being overly ambitious in wanting to split to start a farm in the country. Ah, so that was it. He continued that in doing this they were leaving the original vision for our community behind.

That struck a chord with me. I quickly piped in trying to clarify that the vision for a farm grew out of Shipen’s earlier vision that he had shared with Rodney Kirk so many years ago. It was his idea originally! He had pursued it with the Hutterites and the Gethsemani monks. The current idea for a farm retreat ministry grew from his original vision so clearly it was not something we concocted! I clarified my idea explaining we did not have to give up our ministry with the Cathedral or our ministry touring. Rather, I envisioned three distinct yet connected ministries: “There would be a period of time for retreat and renewal for our community of say two months (the Dean added amen’s to that since he’d just come back from a retreat in Canada). This would be followed by a time to live and minister in New York City of let’s say four to six months (more amen’s), and then a time to minister with our music on tour, say for four months or so.” After I was done sketching out my ideas, the Dean replied excitedly that it sounded great! Unfortunately, though it seemed logical to me, Shipen remained firmly unconvinced.

David then shared his vision for a farm and how it could work. However, as David got into the nitty gritty details of buying and running a farm, the Dean’s face wrinkled into a frown and he backpedaled. He expressed worries about the immense cost of buying and fixing up a farm saying it would be another financial burden that would sink us more into debt and bog us down money-wise. He countered with his own idea, offering us the use of his family cabin in Canada. His face brightened and his eyes fairly sparkled as he explained we could use it for retreat in May or June (he used it in July through September). Then he launched into a series of questions and suggestions to help try to keep us together at the Cathedral:

Would we decide (and then tell him) who at the Cathedral we wanted to be our regular spiritual father? Yes. He suggested it should be someone we could “rap with” and have weekly mass with. Would we also like him to speak to a counselor he knew named Sr. Mary Michael about the Trees undergoing family therapy? We all chimed in YES right away to that suggestion. Then he pleaded with us to please, please, please reconsider our vision i.e. tours or not, playing music or not, staying in New York City or not, and a retreat or not.

He then repeated how much he loved us and how he wanted to be more active on his side of our relationship. He ended by begging all of us (meaning Shipen) to reconsider shelving the community and especially asked us again not to give up our music.

When we left, I felt relieved, overjoyed and very pleased since none of the rest of us had been able to get through to Shipen so clearly and eloquently. I was filled with new hope! Thank you, thank you Dean! I hope it’s not too late!