Oasis of peace on bustling campus

University of Otago chaplain the Rev Greg Hughson looks out over the campus. Photo: ODT
University of Otago chaplain the Rev Greg Hughson looks out over the campus. Photo: ODT
Summer Times reporters recently spent time following southeners going about their daily lives. Today, Greg Hughson shares his day with Elena McPhee.

A passion for peace "at every level" drives the Rev Greg Hughson - and from leading memorial services to distributing treats at exam time, no two days are exactly the same for the biochemist turned university chaplain.

The chaplaincy offices are an oasis of quiet, hidden on the mezzanine floor of the bustling Union Building at the University of Otago.

The sofa in the waiting area was piled high with biscuits before exam season in October, when the Otago Daily Times went to interview Mr Hughson about his typical day.

During the next six days, he said, 1000 of them would be given out to battle-weary students. The initiative was organised by the 19 student associations which make up the Combined Christian Groups, of which Mr Rev Hughson is treasurer.

"The students are really receptive," he said.

"They were just so grateful."

During the interview, a group of enthusiastic students came in to make a video about Mr Hughson — in a bid to show more people where his office was. He became chaplain 19 years ago, and said while each day for him had an element of paperwork and administration, his role was all about people. 

"[My day] depends on the time of year, and/or whether or not there is a crisis of any sort," he said.

On a typical, non-crisis day between five and six students and staff came to him for guidance, on anything from bereavement and stress to break-ups, and cultural issues.

Some might be referred from Student Health, or their residential colleges. Others - many from non-religious backgrounds - might drop into his office to talk to a sympathetic ear, on the recommendation of friends or flatmates.

Still others might approach Mr  Hughson for advice while he was out and about on campus. Chaplaincy on campus was all about "caring for people, listening to people, and supporting people", he said.

"It’s spirituality in the best sense of the word."

As well as leading memorial services after the death of staff or students, Mr Hughson presided over the department of anatomy thanksgiving service, in which medical students thanked the families of those who had given their bodies to the medical school.

A keen supporter of  the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, he worked closely with students from war-torn areas of the world who had come to study there.

As a contact person for the Ethical Behaviour Network, he also spent time speaking to students and staff who felt their dignity, respect or safety had been compromised, and tried to help them navigate a way forward.

While Mr Hughson was solely responsible for the university, he worked in a team of chaplains who also covered the Otago Polytechnic area.

"We don’t have seniority, we don’t have a boss," he said.

"Our accountability is to each other."

Mr Hughson trained and worked as a biochemist, before changing careers at the age of 28, taking a bachelor of divinity degree in practical theology through the University of Otago, and becoming ordained as a Methodist minister.

A founding member of both the Dunedin Interfaith Council and the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group - which brings together the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths - he helps organise a peace lecture every year.

As the year wound down, the university was preparing its first  team of Muslim chaplains for the start of the 2019 academic year - something he looked forward to, Mr Hughson said.

elena.mcphee@odt.co.nz 

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