Beer, burgers and the Bible?
Sounds like a strange combination, but a group of local Catholics believe the best place to talk faith is at a bar - PJ's Restaurant and Tavern in Cresson, to be exact.
Young Catholics have been meeting in watering holes for the past three years for a series called Theology on Tap.
(Mirror photo illustration by Patrick Waksmunski and Tom Worthington II)
Monsignor Michael Becker of St. Michael Parish talks during a meeting at PJ’s Restaurant and Tavern in Cresson in preparation for Theology on Tap.
This is not your average Bible study. Geared toward young people, Theology on Tap of Altoona-Johnstown even has its own Facebook page.
"It's not a lecture. It's a discussion directed especially to people of that age group," said Monsignor Michael Becker of St. Michael Parish in Cambria County. "We choose a restaurant or tavern simply because it's a place where young people gather."
The next session starts at 7 p.m. Monday, and the topics range from sex to the paranormal. Anyone, even non-Catholics, from 18 to 39 years old is welcome to attend the free series. There is no need to RSVP.
"It's very easy for young people to feel alienated from the church. There aren't a lot of opportunities to really ask questions, to discuss matters of faith, not in an informal, relaxed environment," said Anthony Dragani, an organizer of Theology on Tap for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. "This gives people a place where there's no pressure, no stress and we can talk about what's important."
At 32, Dragani, a professor at Mount Aloysius College, fits the demographic. After moving from Pittsburgh five years ago, Dragani realized there weren't a lot of places for young people of faith to meet and talk.
"I wanted to find other people my age who wanted to talk about faith," Dragani said. So, Dragani approached the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown about starting a local chapter of Theology on Tap, a nationwide program.
Theology on Tap was formed in Chicago in 2003 from a partnership between RENEW International and the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The idea was to meet young Catholics where they feel comfortable and answer questions about faith and life in general, as well as provide an opportunity for young Catholics to meet and form relationships.
Theology on Tap started in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 2007. "When we look at the life of Jesus, he always met people where they would gather. It's an occasion for Jesus to meet people where they're comfortable and where they gather," Becker said.
The topics are usually based on the interests of young Catholics. The first session on Monday will be "And then there was light," focusing on a young person's journey in faith. The second session on March 8 will be "Sex and the Soul," focusing on life's connections, the third session on March 15 will be "Paranormal and the Unexplained" and the last session will be a "Stump the Priest" question and answer period.
"We show up in casual clothes and maybe drink a beer and talk about faith. No one judges you," Dragani said. "I think it's very important for people to ask questions. Questioning is a big part of really making faith your own."
About 40 people, a mix of college students, young married couples and single people in their 20s and 30s have attended the series the past few years at Marzoni's in Duncansville. The location changed to PJ's, a more central location in the diocese.
Heather Low, another employee at Mount Aloysius who also fits the age demographic, said Theology on Tap allows young Catholics to talk about things in a comfortable environment and not feel embarrassed.
"A lot of times religion is seen as a very formal area of discussion, especially for young people who have questions or want to learn about different perspectives," Low said. "What we're trying to do is give young people an opportunity to socialize and meet each other and also learn about different topics related to everyday life and faith."