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
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
“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