When our service term in Indonesia with Journey International wrapped up in 2015, all three of us on the team knew that we would return someday. Granted, none of us could articulate exactly how or when, but we could feel it; the tug of inevitability. That feeling helped dull the sting of the last church service with the community, the teary selfies with friends, and the lingering airport hugs with host families. After all, we knew that the goodbyes were temporary.
We had not assumed, however, that we would return together.
Arriving in the States, both my teammates began their college careers. I, having graduated college a couple years before serving with Journey International, slipped back into the same job I held previously. In the years that followed, the three of us made efforts to meet every few months. We attempted to cook Indonesian food (usually with poor results), practiced our Indonesian language skills (more poor results), and checked in on each other’s lives (middling to good results). Our time with Journey International was the connective tissue of our friendship, and a good excuse to get together and reminisce. Returning to Indonesia was relegated to something that would happen to each of us individually, be it a vacation destination with our future significant others, a leg of a work trip, or hitching a ride with a church group to the 2021 Mennonite World Conference.
Then, cheap airline tickets happened. Like, really cheap airline tickets. Cheap enough that we realized we could go together, as soon as summer rolled around. We called each other, nailed down a couple weeks that would work for all of us in between school, work, and vacation schedules, and booked three seats on a plane bound for Indonesia.
Returning to Ungaran, the city we had lived in, brought about all the pangs of nostalgia you might expect. Each of us had a mental checklist of people we wanted to see, food we wanted to eat, and places we wanted to revisit. Throughout the week, each landscape vista, each familiar bowl of nasi goreng (fried rice), and each impromptu reunion with friends served as an opportunity to dust off another memory and hold it up to the stark light of reality. Some memories held up. The food was still delicious. The terracotta rooftops of the city stretching out under Ungaran mountain remained gorgeous. Other memories however, withered and cracked under examination. Friends who had been dating when we left were now married and had kids. Toddlers who were barely walking were now little people with voices who talked a lot. The church where I worked had undergone major office renovations, and the once-fledgling praise band now had lights and smoke and singles available to stream on Spotify (seriously, go check them out).
The three of us had changed too, of course. One of us was now engaged. Another was noted by multiple people to be “much more handsome than the last time.,” I was described as being “just as handsome as before” but still somehow unmarried, and if I wanted to fix that, there were lots of wonderful young women in the church that I could be introduced to.
Each of the three of us could still slip back into the unspoken roles we dutifully filled three years ago. Taxi rides needed a navigator, a financier, and someone to make small talk. It was both heartwarming and a little spooky to witness how weslipped into our roles once again, even before leaving the airport parking lot. In the past we had joked that together, all three of us spoke halfway fluent Indonesian, and it proved to be true again as we helped each other recount stories with friends over kopi tarik (pulled coffee), or hurriedly whispered vocab words when one of us would inevitably blank on a translation.
I’m told that it’s not uncommon for former Journey International participants to visit their placements, but entire teams going back is rare. Indeed, part of the reason I think each of us made the trip work this summer was that we understood the unspoken truth that it wouldn’t be possible again in the future. Schedules fill up, people start families, and priorities change accordingly. Being able to return to the community that loved and fostered us for a year was a chance to refresh old memories, create new ones, and be reminded that ‘going back’ to a place may be impossible, but returning and celebrating the change you find is a joy.