COLUMBUS, Ga. – As day faded to night, bringing a wintry chill to the air, a group of college students and other curiosity seekers entered the back banquet room of Longhorn Steakhouse.
Caps and jackets came off.
Happy chatter eventually filled the room. Some ordered drinks.
A few of the 20 or so people mingling around tables talked of upcoming exams.
You might not think of a restaurant/bar as a makeshift church, but on this night it was. Eating, drinking and idle chatter gave way to a priest’s theological presentation.
A Catholic group that began in Chicago, called Theology on Tap, is making its way around the country.
As the name suggests, the evenings mix theology with food and beverage.
In Columbus, the group started in the fall as an extension of the Neumann Society at Columbus State University. The Neumann Society started last January, after a hiatus at CSU of at least a decade. Neumann societies, named for a deceased Catholic cardinal, are for college-aged Catholics and those interested in Catholicism.
Anne Xuereb, 27, a CSU senior who graduates this month, got the Neumann group going, and then Theology on Tap. After she gave a Victorian literature class presentation last year that dealt with Catholicism, several students approached who were interested in the religion. Eventually she got the campus fellowship going, with the help of friends. She sensed a need, not only for herself but for other young Catholics.
“There really is a distinction between what you learn as a kid at church and what you need to know as an adult,” said Xuereb, a member of St. Anne Catholic Church in Columbus. “So many things we have to take on faith, but there are reasons behind it.” Xuereb and her Catholic friends, in a minority in the Protestant-heavy South, feel a need to know answers to theological questions coming from non-Catholics.
“Theology on Tap brings people together who are interested in the same things,” Xuereb said, “and it is already of service to the community.”
Not everyone who attends Theology on Tap is a student.
Two at a recent meeting were Andrew Meeks and Janna Morris-Meeks, married for a little over a year.
Both are Columbus natives, attended separate high schools here and graduated from the same college, Berry College in Rome, last year. Then they got married. Janna converted to Catholicism as a teenager.
Andrew is in the process of joining the church, attending the prerequisite Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes.
“I spent a lot of time questioning and searching,” Janna Morris-Meeks said. “I know now this is what I believe.”
The couple say they enjoy the theology group because they don’t know a lot of people their age in Columbus.
Theology on Tap has multiple aims, according to its leaders:
- To educate non-Catholics about the faith and to clear up what they believe are misconceptions about Catholicism – one myth, they say, is that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary.
- To bring back those Catholics who have strayed from the church.
- To keep college-age Catholics, who statistically are most prone of all age groups to ditch their faith, active in the church.
“It’s a casual atmosphere, allowing people to meet in a comfortable setting,” said the Rev. Mike Ingram, parochial vicar of St. Anne who has helped lead discussions at the sessions so far. Other priests in the Columbus area also participate. The kickoff meeting was on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where the questions included “Why is a priest needed for confession?”
The second meeting, “There’s Something About Mary,” dealt with theology surrounding the Virgin.
The restaurant-pub setting is intentional.
“We don’t push drinking, no. But we don’t condemn those who choose to drink,” Ingram said. (As in any place selling alcohol, of course, the drinking age is 21.)
The point is to bring the church out of its walls, he said, and into a place frequented by college students and other young adults. “We’re not looking to form a branch of St. Anne at Longhorn (Steakhouse),” he quipped. Not all of the attendees are Catholic, either.
“You learn things. It’s interesting. Now I understand what they’re saying,” said Amber Brookins, 21, also a CSU senior, who doesn’t claim any particular faith but has gone to both the Neumann gatherings and to Theology on Tap.
Another participant is Tabitha Hyatt, 21. A CSU student, she is relatively new to Catholicism and brought along her roommate, 20-year-old Sarah Balak, to a recent event.
“For people not familiar with the Mass, this gently introduces you into the Church,” said Hyatt, raised in the Baptist tradition. “The first time I went to a Catholic Church was an interesting experience.”
The entire evening lasts about 90 minutes. After a social period and placing food and drink orders, participants listen to a priest address the evening’s topic.
The priest also fields questions – an activity obviously not appropriate during a regular Mass.
“I’ve been Catholic since birth,” said Molly Touchton, 22, a CSU senior. “I just want to know more.”