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Pints and piety

A few miles north of Tampa, Catholics convene at an Irish pub in search of finer spirits.

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 18, 2002


This story appeared previously in a regional edition of the Times.

CARROLLWOOD -- The hum of voices and laughter at O'Brien's Irish Pub suddenly turned to silence. People shut their eyes, lowered beer mugs and reverently bowed heads in prayer.

As the scent of cigarette smoke permeated the dim bar room, Tim Woodward, a member of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Northdale, led more than 100 people in a prayer, asking the Lord to bless the event.

After they all said "Amen," event organizer Sabrina Burton carried her glass of Miller Lite beer to the microphone and introduced the guest speaker.

"I'm so happy to see so many happy, smiling people here today," said Burton, director of religious education at St. Mary Catholic Church in North Tampa.

It was a most unusual scene for an organized religious gathering.

The Oct. 8 event was part of Theology on Tap, a Catholic-based program geared toward young adults and launched 22 years ago in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The meetings at O'Brien's Irish Pub in Carrollwood are the first of their kind in Tampa.

Theology on Tap raises an issue: Should church be held in a bar? Or do cigarette smoke and neon beer signs cheapen the experience?

"This is a way to go where people are comfortable," said Ann Rizzo, who works with the young adult ministry at St. Timothy. "We are bringing the spirituality to them. I think it will become very popular."

Others would argue that the group is commiting blasphemy.

Nina Cromwell, 21, said she learned of the event from a church bulletin and attended unaware of the bar atmosphere. She looked around the room in disbelief and left abruptly after she expressed her opinion to people at her table.

"I was raised Catholic by the book. Drinking is wrong," said Cromwell, who attends Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Tampa. "What if I get out on the road and one of these Christians runs me over after hearing a Christian lecture? I don't ever come in a pub. I don't really feel I belong here."

Nor did all of O'Brien's usual customers appreciate the religious event. One woman said she considered it an invasion of her privacy.

The pub meetings were authorized by the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Announcements and bulletins were distributed at hundreds of parishes throughout its five-county area, which includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

Two more nights remain of the four-part series: Tuesday and Oct. 29. They begin at 7:30 p.m. at the pub at 11744 N Dale Mabry Highway. A new speaker will address a different topic each week.

Diane Kledzik -- director of the Office for Small Christian Communities and Evangelization, which is affiliated with the diocese -- led the first seminar, "Everyday Christianity in a Busy World."

She gave examples of how Christians can evangelize and share their faith with others in everyday situations at home, the workplace, their neighborhoods and even pubs.

"Being an everyday Christian is creating an atmosphere where we encounter Jesus in everything we do," Kledzik said.

Most seemed to appreciate the event.

Some made new friends. Amy Weeks, 38, of St. Timothy, and Beth Moya, 26, a member of Incarnation Catholic Church in Town 'N Country, said they plan to stay in touch.

"I'm interested in the topics," Moya said. "Sometimes it's hard to bring the Bible into present time in our lives, and that's what they are doing."

Weeks said she was comfortable with the atmosphere at O'Brien's.

"I think it's about socializing more than just alcohol," she said. "It's a different way to bring God into the formula."

The mission of Theology on Tap, held elsewhere in summer months, is to attract young adults who have become disconnected with the church and encourage them to explore faith.

It is open to people of all ages.

-- Staff writer Connie Drew contributed to this report. Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or grant@sptimes.com.

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