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In going from the stage to the sacred to meet people where they’re at, Brother James Dowd founded the Midwest’s first Episcopal monastery, Incarnation, in 2018. This monastic enclave at 3020 Belvedere Blvd. in northeast Omaha centers on prayer, service and addressing hunger.

Dowd grew up Catholic in Queens, New York. Early religious studies led him to The Passionists order. But a summer job stage managing, casting, directing shows at Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Virginia, where his family moved, sparked a new life. Stage veterans praised his “director’s eye.” He studied drama and arts management, directing musicals and plays in Washington, D.C., then off-off-off Broadway in New York.

He segued into a national special event and television production career that included producing the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A decades-long detour from taking vows followed.

Brother James Dowd stands in front of the hand-painted icon in the monastery’s main room where public prayer
hours are held. Photo by Lynn Sanchez

His life proved rehearsal for the community spirit at the heart of monastic life. Start with his large, close-knit Irish-Italian family. “We lived near each other and did all sorts of things together,” Dowd said. Then there was the “strong sense of brotherhood” his New York City firefighter father exemplified. “That and family is what taught me my first lessons in community. There’s lots of people, you like some better than you like others, but you love them all, and when there’s trouble people have your back.”

Additionally, the Catholic Church taught him about community and faith but also “the two essential things” of his life – prayer and service.

He attended Walsingham Academy in Williamsburg, whose Sisters of Mercy educators became his next mentors. “As a collective group of women these are the greatest people I’ve ever known,” he said. “They’re a very active religious order who do social justice-oriented activities. They taught us what that looks like. And they taught us how to pray. It’s a huge influence in my life that resonates all these years later.” Dowd now leads prayer workshops.

Not to be forgotten, he said, “Theater people have a very strong sense of community based around being part of something bigger than you.” Artists and monks “don’t make a lot of money – you do it for love.” 

Along the way the openly gay Dowd, 60, faced a crisis of conscience and an identity conflict

“Two things were happening at the same time,” he said. “I absolutely knew I wanted to be a member of a religious order and I was coming out. It felt like it was tearing me in different directions and I didn’t know what to do about that.”

Br. Dowd chats with a visitor in the backyard garden of the monstary. Photo by Lynn Sanchez

Being gay then, he said, “seemed like a curse or something strange or sinful,” adding, “I used to pray this prayer from the time I was 16 until my early 20s: ‘Jesus please make me the man you want me to be,’ and what that meant for me at the time was, please make me straight.

“I came to learn the meditation techniques of the contemplative life,” Dowd said. “From that I learned Jesus was saying, I am making you the man I want you to be, just accept this is real and from me. I went from shame to this is OK, this is a blessing, this is one of many ways people live in life.” 

A spiritual director affirmed his religious life calling but didn’t think he’d be any good at it until he dated. Dowd heeded the advice. “I dated, this and that happened. Then I could no longer stand with the Catholic Church because they do not condone something so fundamental to who I am as a person.”

He found refuge in the LGBTQ-friendly Episcopal faith, in which, he said, ‘anyone is welcome at the altar.”

When he made a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, he said, “I felt immediately at home.” Still, he put off following the monastic life. After all, his career was flourishing. An epiphany came during a 2000 all-night, outdoor commercial shoot in Times Square with TV celebrity Dick Clark.

“I turned to see a homeless man not 20 feet away bent over, pushing a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans, a blue canvas tarp over him, no gloves, in the cold, with us in our best winter wear. And that’s the moment I decided to become a monk. I thought that man is who I’m supposed to be helping. I gotta get serious about this.

“All those things together created my particular life and vocational path that’s given me nothing but joy.” 

An advantage to becoming a monk later in life, he said, is “having lived a life similar to those you serve.”

Dowd lost a Franciscan priest friend in the 9/11 attacks. He served the Holy Cross order back East and in South Africa. He then discerned grassroots, prayer-centered community in a challenged neighborhood. A friend, Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Bishop Scott Barker, invited him to be the diocese’s “monk in residence.” Dowd formed The Benedictine Way community, whose Incarnation monastery consists of two adjacent houses. The modest digs seamlessly blend into this Miller Park residential neighborhood. Two partners are Church of the Resurrection next door and Trinity Lutheran down the street.

Oblates and Benedictine Service Corps members operate its food pantry and community gardens targeting inner-city food scarcity and assist social justice allies Restoring Dignity and Magdalene House.

“Standing in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized is what a disciple of Jesus does,” said Dowd, the monastery’s prior. “It’s not just saying those things, it’s actually showing up and doing something about it. I can’t believe I get to live this life.” 

The community convenes for prayers and meals. Silence is observed other times. Guests, neighbors, strangers are welcome. Prayer requests are accepted.

“It’s a ministry of hospitality or presence,” Dowd said. “We are supposed to be hospitable to anyone who comes to the door and help them however we can – if they need food, they need water, they need comfort.” 

Feedback he gets tells him “there’s something about the life we live here and the prayer we pray here that radiates peace outward – It is different from a parish church in that it is a 24/7 presence.

The Episcopalian Incarnation Monastery, where “anyone is welcome,” is located at 3020  Belevedere Blvd. in North Omaha.  Photo by Lynn Sanchez 

“That’s a unique thing about a living Christian community – it’s literally living there and trying to be the disciples Jesus asks us to be,” he said. “I think that would affect any neighborhood, but especially a neighborhood like this in which there are more hungry, unemployed people, more violence, more need.”

Daily communal prayers focus on ending violence and healing divisions locally, nationally, internationally.

When Dowd and fellow monk Jerry Thompson are in public, their robed garb and shaved heads invite questions. The two show up at neighborhood association meetings and events.

Service Corps members and others who join in prayer and service, Dowd said, “hunger for a way to be contemplative and to be in community” in this disjointed era.

“We pray together, we work together, we eat together. Those are the three things that can bring a community together and reinforce it,” he said.

He has no regrets leaving the bright lights for serving others. “It feels like exactly the thing I want to do.” 

Visit www.thebenedictineway.org.


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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