Padre Éloi Gunn (LCdr), originally from Togo, is the deputy commandant and chief instructor of the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre in Borden, Ont. He is also the supervising minister of Chalmers-Wesley United in Quebec City, the denomination representative of the United Church of Canada for aspiring chaplains, the author of several articles about Black Canadians in the military and the founder of Agu ye dze (“Breaking Dawn”), a nonprofit which provides school sponsorships and supports agricultural projects in Togo. He sat down with us to share his reflections on Remembrance Day and the meaning of service.
Ruby Pratka: You grew up in a part of the world where there’s a strong tradition of Catholicism and African religions like Vodoun, and there’s a lot of religious diversity. Could you tell me about your own journey and how you ended up in the United Church?
Éloi Gunn: I grew up in a pluralistic environment: my dad was a devout Roman Catholic, my mom was a Methodist lay preacher and one of my sisters was a devout Muslim, all in a country where indigenous religions were predominant. As a kid, I shared my time between Christian tradition and the religious traditions of my tribe. I was baptized, confirmed and had my first communion as a Catholic. Then I decided to follow my mom into the Methodist Church of Togo and start my theological studies.
My parents sent me to Canada for graduate school, with the goal to return and teach in Togo. My mother died while I was in the first year of my PhD program, and my classmates in Togo had already been ordained, so I decided to find a church [in Canada] that could ordain me. That’s how I joined the United Church of Canada. I was ordained in 2005.
RP: What brought you to the military?
ÉG: I actually didn’t know about military chaplaincy until 2009, when a former chaplain encouraged me to join. I [originally] thought it wasn’t in line with my spirituality, because I’m a pacifist, but she insisted. After a long discernment process with my wife, I decided the best way to say thank you for all that Canada has given me was to take the oath, so future generations can enjoy the same freedoms that I enjoy.
RP: How do you see your role, as a chaplain and spiritual advisor, in a country like Canada where fewer people are declaring that they are religious or spiritual?
ÉG: Maybe our society is becoming less religious, but not necessarily less spiritual. I’ve realized that many of our members believe in a reality higher than themselves, especially in troubled times, sometimes without naming that reality. My role is to support them on their spiritual journeys, wherever that takes them.
RP: Why was it important for you, as a new Canadian and a member of the military, to familiarize yourself with Canada’s military history?
ÉG: Researching Canadian military history, and realizing that we have a history of proud Black Canadians in the Canadian Forces, helped me decide to join. I found out about people like the five Carty brothers who served in the Second World War… and the Black women who formed the Black Cross Nurses after being denied participation in Canada’s Second World War effort.
As a chaplain, I was amazed and inspired by Rev. Capt. William Andrew White, who was the only Black chaplain in the British Army during the First World War. I’m proud to follow in their footsteps. Learning their stories has formed part of my understanding of how to serve my country with honour and dignity.
More on Broadview: Modest Ottawa church houses a stained glass masterpiece
RP: What’s the importance of Remembrance Day for you?
ÉG: Remembrance Day has always been important for me, [although] I didn’t grasp the full reality of it until I deployed overseas. I realized how much I missed my kids and my wife, and how much they would miss me if I didn’t return. So at that point, Remembrance Day took on a personal meaning… It’s also a time to pray for all those who have served our nation who now rest in the Divine’s arms, and to remember the horrors of war — the death, the destruction, the spiritual suffering, the isolation and the fear.
When I travelled to the Netherlands and did the Nijmegen walk, walking for four days through the villages that Canadian soldiers walked through when they liberated the Netherlands, it became very vivid, and I could see the importance of why we have to remember those people and their sacrifice.
RP: I’d like to do a quick pivot and talk about your work in Togo. You founded a nonprofit called Agu ye dze, “Breaking Dawn,” which organizes school sponsorships and agriculture projects in rural Togo. Did you always plan to start a program to help underprivileged people in your home country?
ÉG: Since my mother was a teacher and my dad was an accountant, we were more fortunate than a lot of families in Togo. I promised my mother that after university, I would come back and help children in need. I started [Agu ye dze] around 2005 and United Church congregations have been very supportive. For example, with the help of the congregation in Drumbo, Ont., we started school sponsorships and a farming program in 2008.
Last year, Chalmers-Wesley United Church in Quebec City raised more than $15,000 to build a water tower for a village called Lankui. To see the kids going to school and see that the village now has drinking water is very fulfilling.
RP: If readers want to contribute to Agu ye dze, how can they do that?
ÉG: They can contact Chalmers-Wesley United Church, or they can contact me via the Agu ye dze website.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.