By Riley Manning
TUPELO – Tuesday afternoon, a gathering of a dozen or so meandered about on the balcony of Spring Street Cigars. Most puffed fresh stogies from downstairs, and chatted about work or television. ESPN played on mute above the plush leather couches inside. As people drifted in, some brought dinner in styrofoam boxes. The discussion was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., but folks seem to still be shrugging off the day amongst themselves.
At 6:20, Outpour organizer Chris Cornett looked at his watch.
“I guess we can get started,” he said.
Cornett herded them into the lounge, and gave his monthly introduction before delving into the night’s topic of death, mortality, and the afterlife. The only rules, he said, are for attendees not to attack anyone, and to be constructive about their disagreements.
“So I’ll start out with the most basic question: What happens when we die?” he said.
The circle was hushed in thought for a moment.
“I think it was the apostle Paul who said to be apart from the body is to be in the presence of God,” said Joe Adair. “If you believe the Bible, like I do, when we die, your soul goes to heaven.”
Emily Burleson agreed, but said it’s not so simple.
“My question is how long do we wait. Do we go straight there?” she said. “I have trouble with the soul-body connection. What happens to your soul in a vegetative state? Is there a difference between the soul and the spirit?”
Todd Knowlton chimed in.
“From what I’ve been reading, the soul is what interacts with God, the part of our being that knows something is out there,” he said.
Clint Gibson was a little more skeptical.
“I don’t trust these deathbed visions. Your brain is pumping out dopamine and all sorts of other chemicals to cope with the fact that you’re dying,” he said. “My uncle was haunted by memories of Vietnam, and when he died he said he just wanted rest. I guess that’s all I can hope for, too.”
As usual, Cornett said, the pre-determined questions he brings each month are merely jumping-off points. The talks usually yield many more questions than answers, but they are much more inquisitive than combative, and there is plenty of knee-slapping in the search for elusive solutions.
“All religions have asked these same questions for hundreds of years,” said David Pannell.
“But that doesn’t make them religious,” noted Alexa Werling. “As humans, we’re naturally curious.”
“What we call ‘pub theology’ has existed forever, the crazy guy in the bar saying, ‘the end is nigh,’” said Cornett, who initiated the Northeast Mississippi Outpour. “But what if we sat down and entertained this discussion in the most open setting possible?”
Cornett said he left the church at age 8, and didn’t return until he was 27, at the urging of his wife. He obliged, and ended up attending a small group within his church.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I wanted to hang out with these people and chill.”
But such a church-sponsored group setting couldn’t offer much past the small group, so he consulted the Internet, which led him to the concept of pub theology. In bigger cities, he said, similar groups are extremely common, but he wasn’t sure if it would fly in Tupelo, so he put it in his back pocket for some time. Eventually, he brought the idea up with a close friend, who implored him, “You have to do this.”
So Cornett held the first meeting at the end of March this year. There have been five since.
Outpour tries to meet bi-monthly at various watering holes around town. The group typically ranges from 10 to 20, and Cornett said they do their best to stick to a specific topic. Info and updates are mostly communicated through the group’s Facebook page.
“People who come say, ‘How can you talk about this stuff and laugh?’ At the same time, it’s fun when it gets a little heated, when the water’s not all flowing in the same direction,” he said.
Burleson said she enjoys the diversity of belief she finds with Outpour. They run the gamut of the faithful and the not. Some have degrees in theology, while others have damaged relationships with religion, while others have only questions.
“It’s really neat,” Burleson said. “You learn so much about people and different beliefs because they come to you from personal experience. We’ve had people who are super conservative mixed in with those who are out on the fringe. But everyone has a good time and everyone is welcome and respected.”