"I would like to have enough food to eat and I would like to be able to go to school one day.”
These words, spoken by a fourteen year-old boy in Malawi in 2002, would become the spark to ignite Mary’s Meals, a massively successful effort to feed starving children around the world. Edward’s photo now hangs above Mary’s Meals founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow’s desk, and his words are immortalized in Mary’s Meals’ mission statement: “That every child receives one daily meal in their place of education, and that all those who have more than they need share with those who lack even the most basic things.”
The Shed That Fed a Million Children, a new HarperCollins book by MacFarlane-Barrow, looks at the very personal and often very painful experiences that gave rise to this unique organization’s vision, beginning in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992.
But the story of Mary’s Meals really begins another decade earlier, when MacFarlane-Barrow’s family made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Medjugorje in the same region. Medjugorje was the site of reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to six local children. The young family from Scotland found themselves praying the rosary alongside the young visionaries, and it was an experience they wouldn’t soon forget. “During those few days in Medjugorje, I experienced a feeling of deep joy unlike anything I had felt before,” MacFarlane-Barrow writes. “I felt exhilarated. Our Lady had come to tell us that God existed. I believed her with every fibre of my being. I decided to respond to Our Lady’s invitation in my life as best I could.”
Following her invitation to love and peace would prove costly. As reports of massacres, rape, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia proliferated years later, MacFarlane-Barrow felt obligated to take time off from working as a fish farmer to deliver emergency aid in the region. The modest, family-run effort was coordinated from a small shed small in the Scottish countryside, soon growing into the Scottish International Relief (SIR).
SIR eventually expanded into Romania to house and feed HIV-positive orphans who had contracted the disease in hospitals. The children’s parents were encouraged to abandon them in local institutions, where they were “neglected in every sense of the word.” His description of the first visit to one such institution is nothing short of harrowing. “I will never forget the overwhelming stench of faeces and infection,” he writes, “or the silence when we entered ‘the ward.’”
But in Romania as in Bosnia, we see the seeds for some great idea being planted. First-hand experiences of the boundless, generational suffering that exists in the world and the very real and very terrible connection between hunger, poverty, and education seemed to point toward some future mission. They had done some great work; SIR’s aid and housing convinced MacFarlane that peace overcomes the effects of greed and war, and “that faithful, unconditional love – the sort that I witnessed being lavished on those children unfailingly for years – can transform even the most hopeless situations.” But what about all the children around the world SIR couldn’t reach, born into equally hopeless circumstances?
The answer lay in that young boy’s words in a Malawian village. MacFarlane-Barrow had accompanied a young priest to the home of one of his parishioners who was nearing death from AIDS, which had also taken her husband’s life the year before. The woman sat with her six children in a small hut, the stomach of the youngest distended from malnutrition. MacFarlane-Barrow asked the eldest, Edward, what his hopes in life were. His response would change the man’s life – and the world.