Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A crowded room is the loneliest place to be

On Monday night, Lewis and I went to Theology on Tap. For those who don't know, this is a monthly talk at a bar or pub that often focuses on spiritual or religious topics and usually is aimed at 18-35 year olds. For example, Monday's topic was on "mercy" since this is a Jubilee Year of Mercy, and next month's talk is about Islam. We went into the evening with high hopes - Lewis and I met at one such event after all. But, I left feeling more sad and lonely than I had before we left. I want to try and describe what it was like...

We decided to take a Lyft downtown to the local pub that hosts Theology on Tap. It's a popular place and we were worried about parking and being late. Along one whole side of the pub is a row of floor to ceiling windows surrounded by wooden panes, so anyone walking outside can look in and see people chatting or eating. Inside is all dark wood and comfy booths, Irish memorabilia and posters on the wall, and a huge, wide bar. Behind the bar, bottles of Irish whiskey line the glass selves, and the tap selection in front are almost all Irish or British beers. When you walk in the front doors, you can't even see the back or the whole pub - tables and low walls are all crammed together so you have to snake through them to get by. I could tell the place was packed all the way to back though. The sounds of TVs playing sports, people talking, glasses clanking, and chairs scraping reverberated through the restaurant.

As soon as we walked in, a little table and sign that said, "Theology on Tap! Welcome!" was right up front. A young man and young woman with name tags greeted us at the table. "It's our first time," we said. "We're new to Denver." "Welcome! We're glad you're here," they answered. "Take a seat anywhere you like. We're in this room." They waved toward the left side of the restaurant. I looked where they were waving, and it seemed like their wave encompassed the entirety of the restaurant, or at least, the entire part that was visible from the entrance."All these people are here for Theology on Tap?" I asked. "Yep!" they responded. So happy and on fire that these young people were here to grow in their faith! Lewis and I looked at each other and shuffled toward the crowd, taking a few steps into the main room. We started to take our coats off, trying to avoid swinging our elbows too widely for fear of hitting someone.

I looked at Lewis. "Should we find a table? Or get a drink first?" I asked him. It was 6:55pm. The talk was supposed to start at 7:00pm. I watched him skim the room just as I had, taking it all in. "I don't know," he said. We stood between the bar and a huge, high table filled with young adults. They all looked to be about our age and were laughing and talking to each other. Behind them and along the wall of windows, the other tables were all full or coats were draped over chairs. I started to weave my way towards the back and closer to the restrooms. Young priests with scruffy shoes, sisters in their blue and white habits, and seminarians with shaved heads and neat black jackets mixed with everyone else. You wouldn't even really have noticed them if you hadn't been looking too hard at the crowd - they looked just like everyone else.

The further back we went in the pub, the more chairs were available. At one table, two men sat by themselves at a four person table. "Are you here for Theology on Tap?" I asked. "Yeah," one of them answered. "Could we sit with you?" I asked with a smile. "There's actually three more people coming," he said. "Oh, okay, that's fine," I said.

Behind me, Lewis had his coat draped over his arms and was scanning the nearby tables. Nothing in sight. There must have been 300 people in this room. While we looked around, we moved a little to the side to let people walk past us. Along a wall, next to the portable speaker set up for the talk, was a padded bench. "Do you want to just sit here?" I asked him. "Um, well, I guess we could. Let's get a drink and see if we can find a table," he said. I know he had been expecting what I had: a smaller crowd and the chance to share a table with someone and get to know them. Earlier that night, we had agreed to arrive a little early to "get to know the people at our table." It seemed like we wouldn't be at a table at all.

We shouldered our way to the bar and Lewis caught the bartender's eye. "Do you have any cider on tap?" he asked. The bartender pointed to a tab right in front of us and I nodded my head. We handed over our new driver's licenses and got our drinks - cider for me, Guinness for Lewis. Looking around the room, I noticed two seats had opened up at the big, high table right next to the bar. No draped coats. "Hi, are these seats taken?" I leaned across the table to ask one girl. "Yes, sorry," she said turning back toward her friend next to her.

Slowly with beers and coats in hand, we made our way back to the bench along the wall. It was still free and we sat down. It was past 7:00pm and we expected the talk to start any minute. We slowly sipped our drinks and talked about how different it all was from the young adult's group in Spokane. Finally, a young women stepped up the microphone and said, "Hello and welcome to Theology on Tap! I know we have a lot of new people here tonight so everyone please introduce yourself to someone you don't know!"

Beside us, two men had grabbed seats that had just been vacated, so we turned to them and introduced ourselves. "I'm Eric," one said. "Jonathan," said the other. The first one asked Lewis, "Have you guys been to one of these before?" Lewis explained we were new to town and this was our first one; we moved for his job, but I recently passed the bar exam here. "Congratulations," he said and shook my hand. "So what do you do for work?" he asked Lewis. "Well let's get started with tonight's talk!" the young woman boomed over the microphone. We all sheepishly sat down with "it's nice to meet you" whispers.

"Are these seats taken?" a middle-aged looking woman with short blonde hair waved her beer toward the seat beside me on the bench. "No, not at all," I responded quietly. She grabbed her friend's arm, spilling her own beer down her arm and my shoes in the process. "Oh, sorry! Sorry!" she whispered loudly as she squeezed in beside me, her thigh pressed against my hip. I scooted over towards Lewis and she scooted closer and closer until Lewis was up against the portable speaker. "Sorry! Thanks!" she said, and then turned towards her friend, blocking my view.

The talk was all right. A young sister spoke about mercy and how we cannot live without it, using lives of the saints and some of her own stories. I had a hard time listening though - it was loud - and spent most of the hour drinking my warm cider and crowd-watching. A big group of seminarians all stood together near the bar. A young couple sat across from us, holding hands and listening intently. To my right, a big table of businessmen were clearly not there for the talk and had got caught in the flood of young Catholics. People were in suits, skirts, work-out clothes and jeans. Mostly young but some middle-aged. Probably more women than men but not by much. Everyone looked very normal and average and we probably did too.

Around 7:50pm, the talk wrapped up and a few people made announcements about upcoming events - it was hard to hear. Lewis had left our tab open and asked, "Do you want another?" but I said I didn't. I was tired and we were crammed along a side wall - you had to pass us to go to the washroom. "Do you just want to go?" I raised my voice over the swell of voices that was growing louder in the wake of the talk. "Sure," he said. We gathered our coats from under the bench and stood, moving towards the bar. It didn't seem like anyone else was in too much of a rush to leave - it was easy to get the bartender's attention to close out - and more groups of people talking had cropped up between us and the entrance. We excused ourselves past all of them and towards the entrance. The little welcome table was no longer manned and so we left unnoticed. In the car on the way home, I texted some friends, "There must have 350 people there tonight!!" and even if it wasn't true, it sure felt that way.

Lying in bed that night, I felt a mixture of disappointment and frustration. Disappointment over meeting no one - these were supposed to be people like me, Catholic, young professionals or students and yet there was no room for us among them. Frustrated because of the effort we had made that yielded no results. And most of all, tired of feeling all of these things.

I know it's going to take time. And that eventually our efforts will yield fruit.... In the meantime, I'm grateful for this little place to write and connect. And grateful most of all, for Lewis, and that he's trying too. (I am so glad we're in this together.)

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