In a black, hooded monk’s robe, a large cross dangling from his neck, Brother James Dowd walks the streets of north Omaha.
He knocks on doors to meet his neighbors. He speaks at neighborhood association meetings. And he spends several hours a day praying about how to make a difference in an impoverished, sometimes violent and frequently misunderstood area.
Dowd, a man who once worked in TV and produced the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is the founder of an Episcopal monastery and Benedictine community that opened near Miller Park in July. It’s already yielding results.
“For only being open a few weeks, we regularly have people come to pray with us,” Dowd said. “There are neighbors with a bunch of kids, and two would watch us pray (through the monastery windows). They asked ‘Can kids do that?’ ”
The kids came to evening prayer services and even stayed for a meal before moving away last week.
Dowd, a member of the Episcopal Order of St. Benedict, lives with another monk and two laypeople at Incarnation Monastery near 30th Street and Belvedere Boulevard. The monastery is housed in two homes next door to the Church of the Resurrection, an Episcopal parish known for its diverse congregation and aid to the poor.
Incarnation is the first Episcopal monastery in the Midwest. Most others are on the East or West Coasts. Benedictines are widely known in the Roman Catholic Church — they run Mount Michael School and Abbey in Elkhorn, for example — but many people probably aren’t aware of the Anglican Benedictine tradition, which dates to the Middle Ages.
Monks and laypeople at Incarnation Monastery adhere to the Benedictine tradition of constant prayer, but they are focusing more on social justice, service and living among the people than those who choose a more contemplative existence.
Nebraska Episcopal Bishop J. Scott Barker said he thinks the venture is happening at exactly the right time and place, given the increasing division in society. With Dowd, he discussed the idea and prayed about it for a couple of years.
“As a diocese, we’re always trying to think of ways to pull what’s great from church tradition to apply to the challenges of the moment,” said Barker, a former Church of the Resurrection pastor.
Dowd put it a little more bluntly.
Part of the discussion over whether they really wanted to do this, he said, “was, ‘It’s like the whole country has gone crazy.’ ”
Regardless, Barker said, the purpose is “to teach us to pray more faithfully and to serve the poor more deeply and meaningfully.”
Benedictine spirituality appears to be gaining popularity nationwide. “The Benedict Option,” a book about how to incorporate it into everyday life, made the top 10 on the New York Times bestsellers list when it was released in April 2017. The premise of the book, by conservative blogger Rod Dreher, is that Christians should focus on strengthening families, churches and schools rather than look to politics for answers.
Benedictines live according to three values: obedience, stability and conversion, Dowd said. Four prayer sessions — at 6 a.m., 8 a.m., 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. — anchor each day.
Dowd and his fellow monk engage in some sort of ministry during the other hours. Dowd works on Barker’s staff, and he’s a spiritual director for priests or anyone else who asks.
He’s also talking with as many people as he can to get a feel for the most pressing needs in the community, though he’s only met with a few so far, including the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church on North 30th Street, a representative of the Lutheran Service Corps in the neighborhood and the leader of the Belvedere Neighborhood Association.
The service component of the monastery is starting slowly because he first wanted to establish “a community rhythm of prayer,” he said.
As he tried to discern whether a monastery was right for Nebraska, he visited nearly every Episcopal parish in the state. After that, both he and Barker were determined to move forward.
“One common thing I kept hearing was ‘Teach me how to pray. I don’t know how to pray,’ ” Dowd said. “I think part of what’s happening (in society) today is because we are so far from contemplative prayer.”
Through prayer, he discerned that hunger is the most urgent need facing north Omaha. Anecdotal evidence backs that up. Once word spread that the monastery was open, area residents began coming to the door for food, even though no one had said it was available.
One in six children in Nebraska is food insecure, meaning there are days during the month when it’s not certain they will be fed, according to statistics from Feeding America.
Dowd hopes to quickly figure out a way to supplement Resurrection Church’s quarterly food pantry.
In addition to the monastery, Dowd founded the nation’s first Benedictine Service Corps, a chance for young people just out of college to spend a year helping others and embracing contemplative life, and the Community of the Benedictine Way, an outlet for laypeople who want to explore monastic life.
Abby Zimmerman, a 22-year-old Kansas City native, is the first corps member. Each member will have a ministry unique to them, she said, and hers is helping Dowd establish the corps using her degree in entrepreneurship from Kansas State University. Since August, she has lived with another laywoman in the house next to the monastery.
“I love it,” she said.
One of her tasks is to help figure out a way to sustain the corps through a combination of donations and earned income from a product such as food or Christmas cards.
“People are always excited to buy apple butter made by monks,” she joked.
Barker said Omaha Episcopalians have been enthusiastically supportive of the monastery. When about $40,000 was needed to renovate the two houses, he said, the money was raised in a short time.
For Zimmerman, the monastery is the bridge between college and the seminary. She will study to become an Episcopal parish priest.
For Dowd, 56, monastic life came after a successful career as a New York City theater and television director and producer. He loved what he was doing, but he felt a calling to do something else. He became a Benedictine about 15 years ago and worked in New York and South Africa before coming here.
It was what he was meant to do, he said.
“It’s a total joy,” he said. “You get to pray all day and you get to meet people. I love it when I see someone who’s new at prayer find that joy.”
And he knows he’s where he’s meant to be.
“It’s clear that north Omaha has some trouble, but it’s also clear that there are some really wonderful people here,” he said. “This is really my true calling.”
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