For Daniel Reffner, it was the experience of a lifetime.
The Wichita native, in his second year at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, was chosen to attend the prestigious Ecumenical Institute at Chautau de Bossey, located in Switzerland.
The Southwestern College graduate was one of 29 young people from 17 different countries and representing 22 denominations chosen for the institute, which lasted from mid-September to late January.
Reffner was the only native-born American — one was born in South Korea, but had lived in the United States for 13 years — who attended the institute, and the only person with English as a primary language.
He was also the only United Methodist represented, although there were representatives from the Korean and Mexican Methodist churches in the group.
In this interview Reffner, who turns 24 later in April, talks about the experience and how it changed him and his faith.
Q: I’m sure you had expectations about what it would be like and what you would be experiencing there. Did they exceed your expectations or surprise you in any way?
A: When I went into the experience, I really tried to go into it without clear expectations or preconceived ideas about what it was going to be or how it was going to be formative for me. Instead I really just tried my best to trust that God was going to be in the middle of it somehow. … I mean it did meet my expectations in the sense of being a meaningful and formative time for me in many ways — both for my academic learning and my spiritual formation and my own personal sense of faith. It was a really meaningful journey in ways that I wasn’t expecting and couldn’t have expected.
Q: What do you feel like you accomplished during that time?
A: There’s a few different levels that come to mind. Personally, I accomplished sort of a spiritual pilgrimage, at least one that I can view down the road as a spiritual pilgrimage. For me, part of it was a time to wrestle with my spiritual identity, my understanding of my vocation — which is something I think I really needed to do after my first semester in seminary — working through that and really being honest with myself about where I was and trying to, in some ways, save my faith. When I look back, I think I was faithful through that process, and I was kind of being guided through that in a way that I feel much healthier now.
There was also another formative side of just being in this incredibly diverse community and trying to allow myself to be open to the diversity of cultures and religious perspectives and backgrounds — and just really trying to absorb as much of that richness as I could. I think for the most part I was able to do that. I learned a lot from my colleagues … about their traditions and their beliefs and how they live out their faith in their context, which was incredible to learn about. And also what it means for us to live together as a community of faith. … I believe we have something to teach as people of faith, but we also have something to learn from others.
Just being shaped in that ecumenical spirit is the main spirit of Bossey, and what they seek to do. I really feel like I caught a bit of that spirit. I was happy about that.
Q: Literally, were the living conditions like a dorm, hostel, hotel, apartment … ?
A: I would kind of relate it to a hotel. The Chateau de Bossey has a separate conference center and hotel, but we were living down the road about 400 meters in a community house. We all had our own rooms with shared living spaces and shared laundry facilities. We ate meals together every day — breakfast, lunch and dinner — and we prayed together every day: morning prayer, four times a week. We were living in pretty close quarters, which was interesting (laughs).
Q: You talked about your vocational path — has this changed or altered what your career path might be?
A: Two things come to mind. One is that, for reasons I can’t quite articulate fully, the experience confirmed for me that I have a pastoral identity that I feel is a strong call to the priestly or pastoral roles. Over the summer I think I was trying to walk away from that a little bit, but some of the experiences reminded me about a few things about myself. That part of my identity was strengthened.
The other thing roaming around my mind in this whole experience was my affinity for pastoral care and counseling, being in the space of a one-on-one context and helping someone navigate their spiritual experiences, helping them work toward becoming more involved. I just had begun to consider that a little bit more as a potential vocation or something that can complement my pastoral work. I’m in the process of discerning that a little more at Candler, but at this point it’s not drastically changed — it’s more illumined.
Q: Was one of the goals of this program a better understanding of other religions and other beliefs?
A: That was one of my hopes for the program. … For some reason I felt drawn to the space of being exposed to other traditions, whether Christian traditions or those of other faiths. Learning how to get along. That was a part of it – how to see harmony and unity in this plurality.
Q: Sixty or 70 years from now, what will you remember most about this time?
A: It really has to be the people. I was reflecting on this on the way back from Europe. The whole time I was over there, I went to so many places and saw a number of things. A lot of the places I don’t remember so well, but I remember all the people I met along the way quite vividly, both the ones I lived with and the characters and folks I met throughout the summer … and some of the things I learned from those people through their hospitality. I’ll never forget the lessons I learned from my brothers and sisters at Bossey, about what it’s like to be a priest in Nigeria or to be a priest in Sri Lanka. Hearing their experiences and realizing how different theirs is from mine. That will probably stick with me for a long time.
Q: It can’t all be deep religious thought and reflection 24/7. What did you do for fun?
A: A group of five of us at Bossey formed a little running club that kind of extended to seven or eight or nine throughout the semester. We would go on runs twice a week and ended up training for a half-marathon at the end of October. That was kind of fun. I had never done a half-marathon. … We would go on runs in the early morning — it’s one of my favorite memories of Bossey — and see the stars and see the sun begin to come up. It was just beautiful. I also tried to hike a fair bit. We went over to France and did some hiking, which was a lot of fun. And we’d go to Geneva or nearby towns. A lot of us just needed to get out of the Bossey space, this isolated space in the middle of the countryside. We’d enjoy the city.
Q: What was the biggest “God moment” you had during that time?
A: The extremes that keep coming back to my mind is when we visited the Taizé community in France. This was one of our ecumenical studies. We spent a three-day weekend at this community. I remember it being the richest retreat experience I’ve ever had. I was completely disconnected from my phone and in worship and praying. I just remember a feeling of constant intimacy with God at that time, and I remember leaving feeling refreshed and clarified and assured of God’s presence. That stayed with me to this day.