Working on Ecumenical Activities Broadens Your Horizons. An Interview with Gerhard Frey-Reininghaus

The original intention of spending two years in Prague changed a bit as time passed

DSC_0402Gerhard Frey-Reininghaus (*1951) grew up in a family of four children in the Württemberg region in the South of Germany. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in the United States, obtained a Master’s degree in theology and worked as a pastor in Köngen near Stuttgart for eleven years. In 1990, he arrived in Prague, first for a two-year scholarship at the Protestant Theological Faculty, but he received an offer to work for the ECCB’s Central Church Office. He is retiring after more than twenty years of work as Head of the Ecumenical Department and Head of the External Relations Section.

 What was your childhood like and where did you spend it?

I spent my pre-school years in a village called Neckarmühlbach in Southern Germany, a traditionally religious region. My parents were working in an agricultural company that specialised in the production of seeds for various crops and the whole family was helping with running the farm. My mother was a war widow – her first husband died in the war, which is why I have an older half-brother. My two sisters and I were born in the second marriage. In 1958, we moved to Weissbach, where we were all helping out at the farm.

Where did you study?

When I was fifteen, I left for a seminar, actually a monastic school to be more precise, in Maulbronn, and for a similar school in Blaubeuren after two years. In the Württemberg region, you can receive a scholarship for studying high school. Tuition at these boarding schools has existed since the times of the Reformation, i.e. for almost 500 years. This allowed children whose parents couldn’t afford to pay the studies to attend school. Nowadays the system is slightly different, but it is still a chance of receiving high-quality education. For me, it was also an escape from the endless work at our farm, in a way. After graduating from high school, I spent one year in the United States, which influenced and changed me quite significantly; it was a student exchange programme, I lived in a Methodist pastor’s family, taught German language and culture and worked in the social area as well. I only went on to study theology after that.

What motivated you to become a pastor?

My mommy says that when I was four, I decided I would be a pastor and preach from the pulpit. And in fact, my plans never really changed in this respect. When I was little, I received an illustrated Bible from my parents, in which you could colour the pictures. I loved that. My parents would always support me and step by step, I fulfilled this “vocation”. I studied theology at the university in Tübingen and Meinz. I also focused on prison chaplaincy and social work, especially help for those who have been released from prison. But working as a pastor had always been my priority.

How did you get to the Czech Republic?

After finishing my studies, I was the pastor at a congregation in Köngen, a larger village near Stuttgart, for 11 years. My wife, also a theologian, was working with the youth there. She would organise, for example, meetings for young people behind the Iron Curtain – in Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary. At that moment, we came to the decision that it was time for a change, and that we could try living abroad. We explored various possibilities and finally received a scholarship in Prague, granted by the World Council of Churches, where the political situation was getting a little more relaxed under the influence of the “glasnost” and the “perestroika”. These scholarships would usually last a year, but we were told Czech was such a difficult language that they would send us for two years, so we have time to learn the language. We made our decision in 1989 and only wanted to go for one year. So we arrived at the ECCB’s Synodal Council, Josef Hromádka was the Synodal Senior back then, and at the Theological Faculty, reporting to Jaroslav Ondra. We were supposed to undergo postgraduate studies, not too academic, rather practice-based.

What did you do in Prague at the beginning of your stay?

I wanted to study materials on J. L. Hromádka, I was fascinated by his ecumenical personality. My wife had started working on projects for the World Day of Prayer before leaving to Prague, so she wanted to continue, and also look into some feminist issues. In 1990, Czechoslovakia was to prepare the liturgy for the World Day of Prayer. However, things started happening in Europe in the autumn of 1989, and we arrived in a completely different Prague in 1990.

How did you manage language-wise?

We wanted to master Czech, of course, but at the same time, the revolution brought a huge demand for learning foreign languages, especially German and English. We received an offer to teach German at the Theological Faculty. Most of the students knew some German, so the beginnings were not extremely difficult, and we were learning Czech at the same time, so it was going quite well. We were also attending a grammar course at the Faculty of Arts and conversation at our Theological Faculty – there was a group of around 10 foreigners there who were attending an intensive Czech course at the time. Later we also had private teachers – basically friends, we would visit each other, cook together, they would speak Czech to us and we’d speak German to them, so we were mutually perfecting our language skills. An elderly lady would also take us sightseeing and although she enjoyed chatting with us in German, we asked her to speak Czech only.

The initially planned two years lasted a bit longer, didn’t they?

Our stay was first prolonged by a year when professor Filipi offered us the positions of specialised assistants at the Department of Practical Theology. Then the dean of the Faculty, Jakub Trojan, asked me to work as his assistant, which meant another three years. At that time, a new concept was being planned for the Faculty, which was to be reincorporated into Charles University. The Faculty was looking for a new building, supporters and donators were sought, and then a new building was bought and renovated. I was in charge of international relations in this whole process. And because the money we received from cross-border churches could not be used to fund a state university building, it was being collected for the ECCB. This meant a number of meetings I had to organise at the Central Church Office; I was entrusted with many different tasks at the time.

How did you start working at the Central Church Office?

2014 Bad AlThe cost of the faculty building, including the renovation and furnishings, finally climbed to approximately 130 million crowns – quite a sum. When everything was finished, there was some outstanding debt to be paid. The Synodal Senior at the time, Pavel Smetana, asked me to continue managing the situation, as I was already familiar with it, I knew everything about the funding of the faculty and I also had the necessary contacts abroad. At the same time, I was still a pastor of the Württemberg church. Thanks to my activities in the field of Czech-German relations, the Württemberg church let me stay another four years, as they considered building these new relations meaningful and necessary. As a result, I was able to start working at the Ecumenical Department of the Central Church Office from 1 September 1996. It was twenty years ago last autumn.

The oecumene means establishing contacts not only with churches of other confessions, but also with Protestants around the world. How many churches does the ECCB cooperate or have a partnership with?

It’s around forty churches and church organizations. We have a very good relationship with our neighbours – the Bavarian Lutheran Church and the Saxon Lutheran Church. We do some things together, often see each other and visit each other. Personal contacts also play a very important role of course – at the levels of individuals, congregations, interest groups as well as at the level of the entire church.

Which churches are closest to the ECCB and who do we cooperate with the most closely?

We have the most in common with the United and uniting churches in Germany, from the Baden, Hessen, Rheinland and Pfalz regions. Just like our church, the ECCB, they carry both the Lutheran and the Calvinist traditions, we have been cooperating with them since the fifties. We are, of course, also close to our brothers and sisters in Slovakia, we have flourishing contacts both with the Lutheran and the Reformed churches. In Poland, our relations with the local churches have been enriched in the past few years thanks to the meeting of Christians from Central and Eastern Europe; in the past, we mostly knew about our compatriots in Zelów or the Reformed exiles that left after the Battle of White Mountain, but we did not have many contacts with the local Lutheran church. We have very significant contacts with the Reformed church in Hungary since the times of the Patent of Toleration, when the Hungarians helped provide pastors in the sudden shortage. Many Hungarian students from the Reformed church in Slovakia studied at our Protestant Theological Faculty in Prague in the seventies and eighties, and the friendships have lasted since then. We also cultivate relations with Austrian churches, so we can say we have relations with all the protestant churches in all our neighbouring countries. And we would also have to add our traditionally warm relations with the Waldesians in Italy, with the reformed church in France, with the United Reformed Church in Great Britain, and with the Scottish church.

Okay, so far we’ve only talked about the situation in Europe. What about the overseas?

Before we get to that, I still need to mention that the ECCB has also been part of the Lutheran World Federation since 2004, which has broadened our network of contacts with Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and the Baltics. We also shouldn’t forget about our compatriots in Eastern Europe – Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Poland and Ukraine – but that is a slightly different story. As far as overseas contacts are concerned, in the USA, we have been cooperating with congregations that were also established by compatriots, but today they are basically Americans with a strong love for the Czech Republic. They mostly belong to the Presbyterian Church, but we also cooperate with American Lutherans: in the past years, they have been inviting our students to lead their summer camps. After the revolution, we have also started developing relations with the Presbyterian Church in South Korea – it began with one student, today, we have a large group of Korean Christians in the Kobylisy congregation. A few years ago, we got in touch with another Presbyterian church in Korea, and even with Taiwan. These are our active contacts. We also have contacts of a personal nature in Mexico, Cuba, Kenya and possibly other countries. I am a bit concerned about the fact that the “Third World” is receiving much less attention from us than the Western Countries are.

Do we have any form of international help?

We help our compatriots’ churches in Eastern Europe, that is something of the sort. German churches engage in developing countries, we take care of these initially exiled Czechs scattered in Eastern Europe. We are a small church – we do what we can.

What is the most interesting part of working at the Ecumenical Department and what do you find the most rewarding?

The most interesting part is meeting people from other churches and talking with them, celebrating Sunday services together. Every country is a different culture, and yet we have so much in common. And the most rewarding part? When partnerships grow into something more specific and deep – for example when our pastors go to Scotland to serve in local churches for a year or two.

Upon retirement, you are handing your office over to your successor. Will you continue helping the ECCB with something?

I will have been serving the church for forty years in March. This means I’ve spent more years in the Czech Republic than in Germany. The oecumene has become my life, as our interview shows. I will keep helping out at the Ecumenical Department as a part-time job, so I am able to wrap up the activities that are connected with the anniversaries we’ve been celebrating in the past few years – I am the chairman of the committee that has been set up for this purpose. We still have an international conference coming up to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation at the Senate, and the ECCB will be celebrating the anniversary in Ratiboř in September. I am looking forward to having more time for reading. Fellow pastors have also been telling me they will be inviting me to preach in their place when they leave for a work trip. I am looking forward to that, given that I am healthy and capable. I am staying in Prague and don’t think I need to be afraid of getting bored.

We hope you get all the deserved rest and still have enough strength to continue your work cooperation. What would you wish to our readers?

2011 maminka (1)I would like to thank many people at the ECCB and the ecumenical circles for their warm welcome and their friendships, I am very grateful for all that. I wish your readers that they might always see a reason for joy. And our faith gives enough reason for that. Ecumenical activities broaden your horizons and let you feel that we are all part of one body, of our Lord Jesus Christ, all over the world. If we are to experience this, we cannot only wait for something to come to us, we have to gather enough courage to seek and to set off into the unknown. I wish everybody would feel that our faith gives us strength, a strength that is more liberating than burdening.

Prepared by Daniela Ženatá.