This last week, in advance of Remembrance Day, I found myself talking to Shaun Taylor, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran. I know Shaun as my neighbour and friend, the guy who loves mountain biking and who roasts coffee in his garage. We often stop to chat in the neighbourhood, but we haven’t talked much about his decades of military service.
In my vocation as a minister, I spend a lot of time talking to a lot of different people. And yet for me, war (and the experience of war) has not been something I’ve felt comfortable bringing up. In correspondence with Shaun last week, I told him, “I know it’s just me, but it’s intimidating to know how to approach the subject.”
As someone who grew up in a pacifist Mennonite family, war has always been a concept that I have kept at some distance: something to be resisted. I’ve shivered through many Remembrance Day ceremonies, but war has remained something that other people do in far away places.
The parade of aging veterans is always sobering, bringing past into the present, bringing the gunfire of distant shores to the cenotaphs at the heart of our local communities. And yet — for me at least — in the absence of relationship with those who have served, war and its impacts has often seemed a deadly though far-away abstraction. My images of war are from the news, from movies. With no serving members amongst my family and friends, the reality has never been brought fully home.
The invasion of Ukraine (a place my grandparents fled a hundred years ago) has rekindled my hatred of war. And it’s also piqued my curiosity in coming to better know those who have stepped into armed conflict. These days I’ve been wondering how to bridge that gap.
What do you ask someone who’s been through hell and back? And how as civilians, as those who have not directly borne the cost of combat in our bodies and souls, might we sensitively ask about experiences that have left indelible scars, marking each veteran’s life with stories that aren’t always easy to share?
At the beginning of last week, Shaun posted a few reflections about Remembrance Day on Instagram. In his video, he invited other veterans to join him in answering the question, “What does Remembrance Day mean to me?”
In taking this action, he opened a doorway to conversation. By attaching the #CanadaRemembers hashtag, he gave each of us an opportunity to eavesdrop on the lived experiences of those who have served and who are serving the country in this way. It’s an invitation to listen in, and also to reach out.
The videos I’ve watched so far have been moving and deeply personal. Veterans from coast to coast to coast are posting, sharing their reflections on this question. Stories of camaraderie. Stories of pain and loss. Of those who they served alongside. Of those they were unable to go back for, unable to save.
What these veterans’ stories have done for me is put a human face on something that has long been so distant from my own life experience. With a face and a name, with the invitation to enter into conversation, Shaun’s project has given me a chance to better understand the life of a soldier through the eyes of Canadian veterans. Closer to home, this project has also helped me to better know my neighbour.
This year, thanks to Shaun and a bunch of other vets, an opening to conversation has been created. I’m a peace-loving Anglican minister who believes that Jesus invites us into the way of peace. And also, I’m a neighbour called by my faith to love my neighbours. So I show up. I listen. I learn. This year, thanks to my neighbour, I have a new way into this conversation.
Pastor Andrew Stephens Rennie, St. David’s Anglican Church in Castlegar.