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The Sunday service is much like the Wednesday Night Candlelight Service, but on a much larger, more energetic scale with a live band and plenty of festive music. The venue is just big enough to hold what seems like hundreds of people. James takes the stage and he’s right at home, pacing back and forth as he speaks. He reminisces about his recent snorkeling disaster saying, “Sometimes fear is like a wall, it’s there to show us another way.” I look around as his listeners hang on to his every word and it becomes clear that my showing up to the center unannounced on the off chance I might run into him is not at all what he was referring to when he admitted his assumptions regarding his success. James’ success is only assumed because of his deep belief in himself followed by cultivation, then application.
Over the phone, he explains this is something that started years ago when he was a child. Always having been drawn to film and TV as a young boy in Philadelphia, James saw his first musical in high school and decided then that acting was his calling. After high school, he split his time between LaSalle University and Temple University in Philadelphia where he studied drama, then spent two years studying the Sandy Meisner technique with Bill Esper in New York City. Five years later, major success hit as James landed the part of Riff in the first revival of West Side Story since its original debut in 1957. It was James’ first role in a Broadway production where all three original creators- director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents- were all attached. Soon after West Side Story ended, James went on to tour the country as Jesus in the Jefferson Award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar and as Billy Lawlor in 42nd Street.
From the outside looking in, James’ career seemed almost enchanted, but off stage, art was beginning to imitate life. It was the early 80’s when a deadly disease had started imposing on gay men in the United States, and while James was touring in 42nd Street, a close friend of his became very sick with what was later revealed to be AIDS. Soon after being hospitalized, this close friend of his died before James could get there. He remembers, “I was so distraught. And there I was standing in front of thousands of people every night smiling my ass off and tap dancing in this big cheerful musical, and behind the scenes, I had just lost my best friend.” James couldn’t shake this idea of loss and eventually began writing about it. He first started writing songs, then developed those songs into a narrative surrounding a man dying of cancer. “I wrote my first musical called An Unfinished Song. And it really asks the question what happens if you don’t get to say goodbye? How do you resolve it?” Inherently relatable and tragically honest, An Unfinished Song was produced in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and even Sydney, Australia, just a year after James wrote it.
After An Unfinished Song and somewhere in between starring in productions like The Grande Hotel and in hit musicals like I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, James fell in love with Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. Intrigued by the spiritual message and the theme of eternal youth, he decided he would adapt the film into a musical. This would take him several years, and during this process of analyzing the laws of metaphysics and becoming increasingly interested in discovering his own spiritual path, James enrolled in ministerial school. Meanwhile, after years of revisions, James finally turned his adaptation of A Picture of Dorian Gray into the much-anticipated musical, Dorian, which he directed and premiered at the prestigious Buell Theatre in Denver, CO. Dorian also opened the NoHo Arts Center Ensemble’s first ever 2004 season. A theater James founded as Artistic Director with his husband Kevin J. Bailey that same year.
In addition to his theatrical career, James had consistently been attending ministerial school where he was applying what he calls, “the kinetic energy that is God, that creates everything,” to his work. “Very often, as an actor, I thought I was doing it, that I was creating my own performance, but I realized it’s something in me that does it,” he comments. “I just need to step aside and let it come through, which is what actors whom we call brilliant like Meryl Streep do.” James continued studying and eventually graduated in 2004 from ministerial school, then immediately went into a staff minister position at the Center for Spiritual Living in Los Angeles. But his time there was short-lived because just a year into the position, having made quite the impact, he was being encouraged by members of that congregation to start his own church. James came to a crossroads. “They wanted me to step into a leadership position, and one day in mediation, I got the hit saying, ‘It’s time; do it,’” he says. “Not only that, but a woman offered me a blank check saying, ‘I want to be the first to contribute to your new church. Hold on to this check and when you’re ready, I’ll tell you how much you can put on it.’”
That was in August and by Christmas Eve, the NoHo Arts Center for New Thought, where James gave his first service, was born. But unsatisfied with just giving what he calls talks on the subject of our “Oneness with God,” James’ strong belief in practical application led to the development of a full curriculum to be studied by those also looking to further understand the concept of God and spirituality, or looking to become ministers themselves. “I create classes around books that I think are phenomenal,” he remarks. “I taught Marianne Williamson’s book, A Return to Love, and Don Miguel Ruiz’s, The Four Agreements, because when this material comes out, it behooves me to get in there and dissect it with my students and find out how this applies to me. Really, that’s all my classes are about.” But classes and stimulating testimonies are just a small part of what the center has to offer. James has established a spiritual community where New Thought thrives, offering services like their youth program overseen by practitioner Patrick Feren where youth are taught the principles of the Science of Mind in a language that speaks directly to them, or their outreach program where- in partnership with the non-profit organization Build-On, they’ve committed to building a school in the deprived, southeast part of Africa known as Malawi this June- or their weekly web series, Mental Muscle, where boot camp-like strategies guide viewers on how to get in shape mentally.
Yes, the NoHo Arts Center for New Thought has reached far beyond the four walls of its building, and it’s about to reach even further because in just a few short weeks, James will be launching the Global Truth Network along with founders Marcy and Al Welland. Together, they will bring Mental Muscle and a variety of web-based programs intended to entertain and inspire to the global community. “I’m really getting to pull all of the things I love to do in the entertainment industry right into the world of New Thought, and combine the two, showing the world it’s really one thing,” he says. And with a sitcom, a reality show and a cooking show all developed for the purpose of challenging and encouraging us to open our minds and re-evaluate how we live, slated to premier on the Global Truth Network this year- James will be doing just that.
It was after watching one of James’ earlier sermons on www.nohonewthought.com, where you can go as far back in the archives as April 2010, that I was struck by his revelation, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t ask myself what am I here for.” For James, the answer to this question may change frequently. But what’s certain is after looking back over his accomplishment, it’s clear to see- contrary to what many think about actors- that James is definitely not here to feed his ego. “The greatest lesson I’ve learned thus far is that I’m much happier when I’m not in a human, competitive ego- but when I’m in a divine ego celebrating not only my power, but everyone’s power around me.” And with great power not only comes great responsibility, but also, based on the sounds that came out of Sunday’s morning service, great joy.