MVS La Junta alumni at the 2019 reunion in Milford, Indiana. Left to right: Wayne Hochstetler, Lois Hochstetler, Rebecca Swartzendruber, Merle Christner, Rollin Ulrich, Velma Ulrich, Lester Miller, Robert Albrecht, Beverly Nice, and Clifford Miller. Photo by Lauren Eash Hershberger.

By Travis Duerksen
Tuesday, February 25, 2020

NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Through the late 1960s to mid-1970s, dozens of college-age young adults filtered through the Voluntary Service (VS) house in La Junta, Colorado. Some arrived as conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. Others sought a change of pace after school. All left the house with the memories of close community tattooed on their lives. Yet, none knew their friendships would be rekindled 40 years later.

VS was a program of Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. Through the formation of Mission Network, VS was merged with Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS).

The first MVS La Junta reunion took place in Goshen, Indiana, in 2012, and was the creation of two years of planning and research by alumni. Rollin Ulrich, a member of the initial planning group, recalled turning to friends of friends, Christmas card letters, and even simply Googling the names of fellow alumni to find current contact information.

“That was back when you could Google somebody’s name and chances were, you were going to find some [relevant] information,” he said. “I got a lot of information off the Internet at that point just by searching and searching and searching.”

The 2012 reunion brought more than 60 MVS La Junta alumni and community members together for a weekend at Maple City Chapel. Soon after the weekend ended, nine of the couples that attended were already making plans to meet again. A year later, they met for a weekend in Freeport, Illinois. Then Versailles, Missouri. Two years after that, Alberta, Canada. Then Rocky Ford, Colorado. This last September, the group met in Milford, Indiana, and are currently planning their next reunion for 2021.

The group has remained steady through the years, consisting mostly of La Junta alumni who served between 1970-1974.

“[The time frame] is very fluid,” said Merle Christner, an MVS La Junta alum that helped coordinate the gatherings since the initial 2012 reunion. “There’s no set beginning or ending [date]. Anybody who feels a connection is invited to come.”

While some participants left La Junta after their service ended, others, like Christner, stayed and remained connected to the MVS unit and the larger community. “We had what we called a young adult fellowship, which was anywhere between 30 to 40 people,” he recalled. “My wife and I stayed on for four years after I got out [of service], just because there were a number of other people that we could do stuff with.”

Regardless of the length of time spent in La Junta, participants shared certain touchstones that are memorialized every reunion: the hospital where most of the participants served, the local churches that nurtured the unit year after year, the choruses sung every week up and down the halls at the nearby nursing center.

“We worked, we laughed, we cried, we ate, we vacationed, and we were poor together,” said Velma Ulrich. The Ulrichs met each other through the unit and married soon after their terms ended. “The common denominator is that special year we all spent together in a huge house,” Ulrich said. “There was nothing like it.”

While each reunion location differs, the schedule for every “VSers and Friends” gathering provides ample time for both informal and formal conversation, as well as singing and worshiping together. The most recent reunion theme traced how La Junta shaped each attendee’s life.

“There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of joy involved,” Beverly Nice said. “It’s a group of people that really have learned to tune into each other.”

“Each of us, having been part of this VS experience, would tell a bit of a different story,” said Becky Swartzendruber, an MVS La Junta alum who helped plan the initial reunion. “Today, many of us belong to other denominations, but the bond of La Junta, Jesus, and friendship remains strong.”


Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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