Mary’s Meals is a Scottish charity that sets up school food programs in some of the world’s poorest communities to ensure that hunger and poverty do not prevent children from gaining an education.
Since its beginning in 2002, Mary’s Meals has grown from feeding 200 children in Malawi to a worldwide campaign that now feeds more than 1 million children daily.
Mary’s Meals is named after Our Lady. The charity’s inspiration is Catholic, although the charity is not officially a Catholic organization.
The charity’s founder, Magnus MacFarlane, was praised in 2010 as a “CNN hero” for his role in Mary’s Meals. In April 2015, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. His book, The Shed That Fed a Million Children, reached the prestigious Sunday Times’ best-seller lists immediately upon release. He has received honorary degrees from the following universities: Hull, Glasgow Caledonian, Stirling and Edinburgh. He was also awarded an “Order of the British Empire” in the 2011 “New Year’s Honours” list in the United Kingdom.
Just before Christmas 2019, MacFarlane spoke to the Register about why he started Mary’s Meals and how his Catholic faith helped not just its founding but also how it guides its continuing mission.
Why did you start Mary’s Meals?
I never set out to “start Mary’s Meals.” I just tried to do one very small thing to help, and then a chain of events, which is still unfolding, began to happen.
There were certainly very specific experiences and encounters along the way, though: Our first pilgrimage to Medjugorje when I was only 15 years old led my parents to convert our home into Craig Lodge House of Prayer. It was 10 years later that my brother and I launched an appeal and drove some donated aid to a refugee camp. Without that earlier decision by my parents, this new work would not have begun to grow, not least because of the large network of people who had been on retreat at Craig Lodge over the years and who began spontaneously to support and fundraise for our mission. That outpouring of support led me to give up my job as a salmon farmer, and I began driving truckloads of aid to the former Yugoslavia.
How did your mission change from a response to a humanitarian crisis in Europe to a charity that feeds many children in Africa?
For 10 years we worked under the auspices of Scottish International Relief. Initially, that was all about transporting gifts in trucks, but then we began supporting different kinds of projects: opening homes for HIV-positive children in Romania; setting up a mobile health clinic in Liberia in the midst of the country’s civil war.
And then, in 2002, Mary’s Meals was born in Malawi. That was a year of terrible hunger there, many millions facing starvation. We got involved in setting up emergency feeding projects through Catholic missionary priests and nuns. The resulting new campaign began to provide daily meals in places of education for children — the poorest children on Earth who miss school because of hunger.
Did this feel like a supernatural calling?
I certainly know this work does not belong to me. It would not have been possible for someone with my very limited skills and qualifications to set out to do this. I know I am serving something much bigger than me.
I believe that this mission belongs to our Blessed Mother in a very special way. I also believe it to be a fruit of prayer and a fruit of Medjugorje. A confidence in God’s providence shapes the way we approach this work, and he has certainly shown us many times his providence in very particular ways, giving us exactly what we need just when we need it.
How much does the role of faith continue to play in Mary’s Meals?
Mary’s Meals is a universal mission. People of many different faiths and no faith participate around the world. The only qualification required is a love of the hungry child. But for me, personally, and for a huge proportion of my co-workers, faith is at the heart of what motivates us and shapes our mission.
Prayer is named in our mission statement. It seems to me prayer comes first in the story of Mary’s Meals. I see also many young people engaging in Mary’s Meals as a way to practice their faith: to help make it a lived, active faith.
How hard is it to be a truly Catholic NGO?
Whilst we are not an “agency of the Catholic Church,” our mission is unashamedly named after the Virgin Mary, and the values that guide our decision-making and day-to-day work are informed and shaped by Catholic social teaching.
We also have priests and bishops on our various boards. In some ways, not being a Catholic charity, in the formal sense, helps us authentically to be one.
We cannot just say “we are a Catholic charity” and put a stamp on ourselves to that effect — and then say that everything is “okay.” The path Mary’s Meals is taking requires us, on a daily basis, to ask ourselves if we are living up to our values. Are we doing this work in a way that really honors our Blessed Mother and points to her Son, Jesus? It is extremely challenging to know that it is our actions and our behavior that allow us to be seen by many as a Catholic charity, rather than simply one with a formal title or relationship to Church authorities.
Are you under pressure to compromise your Catholic beliefs when dealing with governments and the United Nations?
Not really. Whilst our values may run a little counter to the “wisdom of the world,” school feeding is a very simple initiative that rarely brings us into areas of controversy.
What are you most proud of when you think of the work of Mary’s Meals?
I am proud of the children who support this work in such beautiful ways. Despite their crippling poverty, I am proud of the volunteers who cook the meals every day for the children of their communities.
What keeps you going?
Motivation has never, ever been a problem! What could be more motivating than seeing the world’s poorest children fed and set free from poverty? What could be more motivating than meeting people who support this mission with the little they have — people who give until it hurts? I am also kept going by a very wonderful wife, Julie, who loves this mission as deeply as I do and who supports me in so many ways.
What is next for Mary’s Meals?
The next child waiting, the next school waiting: We go on, little by little. We aren’t big into long-term plans or targets.
And what’s next for Magnus MacFarlane?
It is a joy to work in this way. I hope to keep going as long as God wants me to!
K.V. Turley is the Register’s
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