Taking religion into the casual atmosphere of a bar

"Theology on Tap" is a way for religious 20- and 30-something Pittsburghers to meet like-minded individuals in a casual setting

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A minister walks into a bar, orders a beer and begins discussing religious doctrine with a large group of young, single adults.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Over beverage and food, Daniel Strudwick, lower left, leads a theological discussion on faith versus good works at the monthly meeting of Theology on Tap at The North Park Lounge in the Oxford Athletic Club in Pine.
Click photo for larger image.

No, it's not the beginning of a joke. It's a way for religious 20- and 30-something Pittsburghers to meet like-minded individuals in the casual setting of a bar or restaurant.

This month's "Theology on Tap" meeting was held Nov. 20 at the North Park Lounge in the Oxford Athletic Club in Pine. Amid the noise of video games and pop music, Daniel Strudwick, 37, a director of youth ministry from St. Richard Church in Richland, spoke to a group of 21 people, most of them Catholics, about salvation as a concept and why it's a dividing line between Christians.

The notion of reaching young adults outside the straight-laced confines of church began in 1981, when the Archdiocese of Chicago recognized a need to involve people in their 20s and 30s in theological discussions regarding their lives and futures. "Theology on Tap" was created to address that need. The program made its way to Pittsburgh two years ago. It is active in many other cities, including Washington, D.C.; Lansing, Mich.; and Atlanta.

And as landscaper Ben Piccolino, 35, of Richland, found out, it's also a great way to meet people. "It's an environment where you're around people your own age who share the same values."

A regular churchgoer, Piccolino acknowledged that church was not the ideal place for young singles to socialize.

"In church, there are a lot of people my age, but most of them are married. Being single leaves you feeling like a missing link."

It was through "Theology on Tap" that Piccolino met Marla Long, 23, of Emsworth. The two have been dating steadily for the past eight months.

"I didn't come to [these discussions] looking for a relationship, but it is a good place to meet people with whom you have [religious beliefs] in common," he said. "I was open to the fact that I might meet someone, but the reason I come is primarily to search for the continued hope that there are others with faith. Meeting Marla was a bonus."

Long enjoys being able to learn more about her religion in an informal setting. "I'm really growing deeper in my faith and spirituality," she said. "It's a relief to be in the company of other people like me."

Sharon Bogusz, director for Catholic Faith Formation at St. Richard, has been coordinating the local monthly events, along with Krissy Bearer, 21, of Franklin Park, since its inception in November 2001.

"In the Catholic church, more attention is being paid to young adults," she said. "The idea is to reach out to [young adults] where they really are, where they hang out with their friends. Some [groups] do it in a church basement with a keg of beer, but it usually takes place in a bar or restaurant. The churches are able to share the message of the gospel without the fear of being intimidating. It also gives people more of a freedom to ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking in a church setting."

It also makes it comfortable for people such as Justin Wuycheck, 26, of Lawrenceville, to discuss religion in a bar.

"I don't go into a bar thinking this will build my faith. I go to have drinks and talk to my friends. When I come here, however, I'll meet people who are practicing their faith, and it's immediately a different connection. In the bar, I may have a religious conversation, but that would happen only by chance or providence, not by intention."

Wuycheck pointed out that Americans, especially, tended not to mix drinking and religion.

"To put those two together, we're saying, 'I'm not uptight, and I can have drink and talk about God,' because he's not a rule-keeper. It's a way to proclaim our faith in a public space. We're not uncomfortable with the seemingly taboo experience of going to a bar and talking about God."

Beer, however, is not always the drink of choice. "Beer's not necessary, but knowing it's available draws a casual crowd," said Andrew Maul, 35, of McCandless. A single guy, Maul is hoping to meet a nice woman while getting into theological discussions.

Bogusz, 33, of Shaler, is also single, but, she stressed, "['Theology on Tap'] is not like a singles group as much as it's a young adult group with married, single and divorced people in attendance. I have had priests and religious brothers and sisters come to it [both as speakers and as guests], and if you're a young adult seeking a conversation about faith, you're welcome there because that's your common ground."

North area "Theology on Tap" meetings, which generally take place on the third Thursday of each month, are promoted by the Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"They don't run it, but we're always in dialogue with them and have their blessing," Bogusz said.

One of the program's goals is to become a connection for people who aren't involved in a parish community, Bogusz said, adding that there are two other groups in the South Hills.

"We can help connect young adults with what's going on in their own neighborhood. Some of those are already connected to a church community, and churches send them to [the events] to reach a population they struggle to reach in their communities. This helps parish communities figure out ways to be more adult friendly and find venues that are attractive to young adults, like a coffeehouse or a bar."

Leading each month's discussions are master's-level speakers who have studied theology and religious education and are involved in ministry.

"They're always competent in their fields," Bogusz said. "We work hard at being sensitive to interfaith issues and humanism and other Christian traditions. It's about us walking together."

And talking together, Maul said.

"I'm pleased to see so many young people willing to talk about their faith and not shy away from controversial issues," he said. "And if I happen to meet a pretty girl and a relationship develops, that would be fantastic."

Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.


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