Surrounded by fires and fireflies, s’mores and substantial conversations about the essence of sandwich-ness, Kelly Hughes, Boston College’s new Appalachia Volunteers (Appa) Program director, watched everyone on the first Appa trip leader retreat laugh, sensing a connectedness between, and with, the students. In an interview last week, she spoke of the satisfaction she gets from watching students come together and share stories.
“In one of the Gospels, Jesus goes ‘I will give you life and I will give you an abundance of it,’” Hughes said. “I kept thinking, ‘This is abundant life.’”
Hughes began her life in Southern New Jersey. She graduated from Providence College, where her faith came alive. She met her role model, who was, unsurprisingly, a campus minister. Through him, she encountered the presence of joy in a life of faith and was first provoked to ask questions and “wrestle with God,” while receiving love and support. When her friend in college was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, Hughes’s campus minister helped her navigate physically and spiritually through suffering, driving her to the hospital and pushing her to understand and connect how to find love in tragedy. Through his ministry, she found her calling.
“I thought, I don’t know what this is, but I want to do this for the rest of my life. I recognized this was the thing worth giving your life for,” Hughes said.
Hughes threw her whole self into her faith by creating a peer ministry program at Providence, whose leaders with which she still keeps in contact today. She then furthered her faith through education, graduating from BC’s School of Theology and Ministry. She was struck by student engagement at BC, specifically students’ fierce commitment to knowing their place at the University and the world at-large, and their willingness to ask provocative questions.
That’s what drew her to Appa. The alternative Spring Break, which began when Gregg Cassin, BC ’80, and 19 other students piled into a car, headed to rural Kentucky, asked an important question: What if you gave up bikinis and bellinis on the beach to help serve others? Hughes hopes to keep seeing students ask questions, even as simple as “So what?” She wants to take people’s engagement in faith and justice and see them apply it to every aspect of their lives.
“These questions are the stuff of our hearts, of our minds, of our souls,” Hughes said. “It’s the questions that fuel this really transformative time.”
Hughes loves the sense of freedom and wistfulness evoked by her favorite song—”Born to Run,” by Bruce Springsteen, which can be heard dancing from her office in the basement of McElroy and springing from the unrolled windows of her car. Music reminds her of how she started in ministry—her humble beginnings in the occupation being that of “choir girl.” Hughes believes that music can be a connection to people and God, a means of finding authentic friendship. She finds God in the moving world around her, not in stagnancy or harshness. Hughes’s dynamism is one of the reasons why she will be such a great Appa program director, as Appa is an educational affair that acquaints students with the harsh realities of poverty in America.
“The educational components of the program—both what happens before the trip, and what happens during and afterward—are critical and require intentionality and planning. Kelly brings a fantastic spirit and a creative mind to Campus Ministry, and we’re excited for the ways that she will engage with our student leaders to bring these important pieces of Appa’s mission to life,” said Ryan Heffernan, Appa’s former program director and the current associate director of Campus Ministry, in an email.
An avid storyteller herself, Hughes is interested in hearing the stories that make students. The candor and honesty of these conversations, not coffee, although she does have Keurig in her office, gets Hughes out of bed in the morning and perpetuates her movement.
“I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a teenager during my year of service where she looked me in the eye and said, ‘I hear what you’re saying but I don’t understand. My father has cancer, how can you tell me to have faith? How can you tell me right now there is a God when all I know is pain and suffering?’” Hughes said.
Hughes is interested in walking with students in whatever they may be going through. Come May, she hopes to have a greater understanding of students from BC and the way in which Appa invites students to participate in social justice. She hopes to see greater collaboration in building Appa as a part of the University.
“If I’m sitting here a year from now, I hope there’s other people on my couch,” Hughes said.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor