Ben and Shelby Hufford, the fourth couple to live at the Grotto, are seniors at Hillsdale. Shelby is an English major from Sandpoint, Idaho, and Ben is an applied math major from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
How did you meet?
Shelby: I was friends with his roommate, but I didn’t really know Ben. Then, at Halloween, our friend group all dressed up as the characters from Riverdale, and we didn’t have anyone for Archie. So, we recruited Ben to dress up with us, and then he was friends with us from there on out. We became really good friends over the course of the next few months, and then in the spring of our freshmen year, we started dating.
What is your faith background?
Ben: My parents were raised very lukewarm, 70s catechism Catholics. Then they met each other at college and had a reconversion to the faith in college through a program called UCO and so they actually got involved with the Catholic charismatic movement. So, I was raised in a charismatic Catholic Church, Christ the King over in Ann Arbor. So that's something that's always been a part of my faith. I went to a good church, and I was raised in a great family. I definitely had a lot of mini conversion experiences in my life, such as going to different camps. There was no dramatic moment of “this is the day I make the faith my own.” It was always just little new perspectives of things like, “Oh, this is actually what it means to have a relationship with Christ.”
The decision to come to Hillsdale was such a God-decision too. I was a good kid in high school, but I was definitely super cocky and prideful. I got into Hillsdale and Notre Dame, and I really wanted to go to Notre Dame just because I had gotten so much recognition for being accepted. Then I visited Hillsdale, and I stayed overnight with Nate Messiter because I knew him from a Christian camp. It just felt like, “Alright, this is it. This is where I fit in.”
I was well catechized in a certain sense, but I didn’t truly know the intellectual depth of the faith. And so Hillsdale was great for strengthening my faith, because I started getting asked all these questions that I didn't know the answers to—mostly from Shelby. She’d ask, “where's that in the Bible? How can you support that?” I didn’t know, so I spent a lot of time googling Catholic Answers. I had been used to taking everything on faith, but once I found the evidence, it made the faith so much richer to me. Shelby: I was raised in a very faithful nondenominational Protestant house. All my family has a really good faith. If it weren't for coming to Hillsdale, my story would probably be almost exactly the same as Ben’s, where it's all these mini conversion experiences, and no one big moment. And honestly, it's still kind of like that, because that’s just what conversion is. When I got to Hillsdale as a freshman, my whole friend group pretty much was Catholic. And so I was super curious in the beginning—lots of the classic late night conversations, and then eventually, it just kind of got to the point where I was like, “Okay, I'm done. I'm going to be protestant, you're going to be Catholic, and we're still going to be friends. But I don't want to have this conversation every day.”
Then Ben and I started dating. And in my mind, I thought, “we might get married, but we're going to be different and I have to be okay with that for us to start dating. We started dating right before we left for summer at the end of freshman year. I went home and had no Catholic influences, except randomly this Protestant friend who I hadn't talked to for several years recommended a book to me. It's called Into the Deep and it's a memoir of a Protestant lady who becomes Catholic. Ben had such a good intellectual defense for faith, but I still didn’t get it. For example, maybe there's biblical background in the verse, “Behold your mother,” but I still didn't get why in the world you'd want to have a relationship with Mary or why that is good for your life. In this book, she just gives this beautiful picture of the Catholic life and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together like Mary, and the Eucharist, and the pope. I was living in Idaho with my family and didn’t know anyone who went to mass, so I started going to mass by myself. But I still didn’t think I was going to convert.
Then I came back to Hillsdale and started going to RCIA. And eventually, the big thing for me was how everything is centered on the Eucharist. I went to mass every Sunday, and I thought, “I just really believe that that's Jesus. And I don't understand a lot of the Marian doctrines, and I don't understand when the Pope is the Pope, but I feel like I just know that that's Jesus. And so if I'm going to continue to not be Catholic, then that's denying the identity of Jesus, which is the cornerstone of every Christian’s faith. And so I'm just going to have to take the rest on faith.” So that was kind of my logic. I came into the Church at the end of my sophomore year.
How did you decide to be the new Grotto missionaries?
Shelby: We were always in a pretty serious relationship, but especially after I became Catholic, we knew we were getting married it was just a matter of when. We got engaged in January of our junior year. We had talked about doing the Grotto, because I prayed here a lot throughout my conversion, and we had both done ministry before. When we heard that Tim and Peri Rose Force were leaving the Grotto, we hoped that the next couple would only stay for a year, because we wanted to get married after our senior year.
Ben: The Forces said they were in the hiring process, so we just kind of crossed the Grotto off of the list, because it didn’t seem like it would work out. Then, as a completely independent decision, we decided to move our wedding up a year. Then three weeks before the semester ended, everything happened. We had never really set a wedding date. Everybody at Hillsdale gets married after graduation, so we thought we would too. But the more we talked about engagement, the more we realized it's not a vocation. It doesn’t have special graces. It's just the commitment without the sacrament. And so instead of being engaged for 22 months, we thought we should just get married. Fr. Dave gave us really good advice. He explained that we could either spend a year of our relationship building good boundaries, or we could receive the sacrament and grow toward God together. We thought that made sense. He asked us if we could get married this summer, but we both had internships, so we decided to get married when we came back in the fall. So three weeks before the end of the semester we’re doing rapid wedding planning because we weren’t going to see each other or have time to talk once our summer internships started. Then, one week before we leave, Peri Rose comes up to us after mass and asks if we’ve ever thought about running the Grotto. We told her that we’d always wanted to, but that we couldn’t because we’re students. She encouraged us to think about it, and so we took 24 hours to pray, and then applied, and got accepted the next day.
What is your favorite part about the Catholic community at Hillsdale?
Ben: The reverence that Hillsdale students have for the Eucharist is extremely special. They take their faith seriously and take the Eucharist seriously. You are the sum of the people you surround yourself with, so it’s just an amazing environment to be in.
Shelby: One of the things that drew me to Hillsdale was that all the students seem to have a purpose and actually want to be here. I think the Catholics at Hillsdale are very similar. Everyone has articulate reasons and a fervor for being Catholic. When I was a protestant at Hillsdale, I remember asking people why they went to a particular church. Most protestants would say things like the music or the atmosphere—but it was all preferences. When I talked to Catholics, it was this deep-seated need to be Catholic.
What makes the Grotto special?
Shelby: Every time I walk into the Grotto chapel, or any place where the Eucharist is present, there is a loud silence—as though there’s a tangible, heavy weight to the air. You immediately know that there’s a sacredness in this space. You can pray or read the Bible or fellowship anywhere, but when you do those things in the presence of Jesus, I think it’s better for your soul. Ben: The Grotto is the link between the college students and the parish, and so it has a steadiness that Catholic Society as a club doesn’t always have. Every year, Catholic Society has to train a new leadership board, and it’s by the grace of God that every year the club is able to be active and strong, but it is very fluid. But the Grotto is adoration, mass, prayer, and the presence of the Eucharist. It’s consistent and stable. In a certain sense, I think it doesn’t matter as much who we are as the Grotto missionaries, as long as we can cook some food and unlock the door. The Grotto just has a steadiness that isn’t dependent on the year or who’s running Catholic society, but because Our Lord is here in this house. What are you most excited for about this year?
Ben: I’m excited for a bunch of little things: it’s going to be so much fun to meet a bunch of students, and to host our first convivium and first mass and have everything not come crashing down and burn. It will also be great to move in and live here together.
Shelby: I'm really excited to live with Jesus, and to see all the graces that will come with that. I think on the personal side, it will be really cool to begin our marriage in a ministry position. Because originally we were both excited for a senior year of being married, but not having as many responsibilities. Obviously we have our classes, but we don’t own a house or have a full time job. But when we thought about doing the Grotto, we realized it’s going to be a lot of work, and a lot of responsibilities before and after classes. Then we’re also relationally available to all these students, and won’t necessarily have as much time for each other or alone; but that’s what the faith is, that’s what God made us for—to open our hearts to everybody all the time. Jesus got really tired from doing that, but that was His ministry. And so, I think it will be a very good beginning to our marriage. And I’m also excited to meet students, and have deep mentoring relationships with some of them, but also just have the people who you just wave to all the time, because that’s how Jesus loves people, on an individual basis that varies from person to person.
What else should people know?
Ben: The most important thing to know is that mass is at 11 am on Tuesdays!
Shelby: One of the first things Tim and Peri Rose told us was that the title everybody thinks of us as is “the college ministers for St. Anthony’s” because we essentially run the college ministry team. But actually, in the official books, wherever that is, our title is “Guardians of the Eucharist.” And I think that even if we were both hermits, or burned all the food, or hurt people’s feelings, or messed everything else up, it wouldn’t matter as long as we unlock the door and let people come pray. Because this really isn’t about us, it’s about Jesus.