WINNIPEG — Bringing food to the suffering in war-torn countries is dangerous, but the greater danger is believing you‘re superior to the people you think you are helping.
“It‘s not like that and it should never be like that,” says the founder of Mary‘s Meals, a group that feeds more than a million children a day. “It‘s about a whole lot of us walking together,” said Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, a Scottish man who, one day in 1992, quit his job and, with his brother, started trucking donations to people stuck in the upheaval in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mary’s Meals, named for the Mother of Jesus, now works in 13 countries.
MacFarlane-Barrow was one of many presenters taking part in the 16th Annual Marian Eucharistic Conference, Aug. 25 - 27 in Winnipeg.
MacFarlane-Barrow said it was a blessing to be among the many priests and religious at the conference. “It‘s easy to take that gift for granted, of being part of this amazing church of ours, of people who have given their life to Jesus.”
He spoke of being in Somalia, where, among all the other ruins, the church had been decimated, and he had never felt so alone. “There was a complete absence of church.” But as he prayed that morning he realized it was Sept. 8, “Our Lady‘s birthday, and I began thinking what could be a more wonderful thing than being in this place where people are starving and scared and bringing them food. A gift from Our Lady on her birthday.”
He spoke of refugee camps and women who had walked more than a hundred miles; some had watched their children die of hunger on the way.
“Our Holy Father Pope Francis talks about ‘the sin of efficiency’ aimed at those of us involved in this kind of work. We can make the mistake of getting caught up in the numbers and how efficient we are in terms of implementing our projects and losing sight of the person in front of us and loving that person in front us and giving them our time. “
MacFarlane-Barrow said today in South Sudan six million people are chronically hungry while war rages, with no sign of ending. Children have lost their parents and lost their communities, they arrive alone in villages looking for food.
“It’s a place of horror and sometimes in those situations I hear people ask where is God in this situation, maybe we even ask it ourselves. That’s such a big part of what this mission is all about. It gives us this opportunity to allow other people to see God and what he really is, a loving Father.
“Growth in holiness has to do with accepting our God as a loving Father, someone who just wants to hug us and to love us, a God of mercy. That‘s what this gift of Mary’s Meals is all about. That ‘yes.’ First of all it‘s just a simple, practical, motherly act, one you would probably expect given we‘re doing this in the name of our Blessed Mother, a practical mom who I‘m sure knew the struggles when they were refugees, when they had to flee to Egypt, the struggle of feeding her own child, Jesus, so it‘s a practical, motherly thing that we don’t want to overcomplicate or even over-spiritualize in the wrong way.
“But it‘s also a sign to the world about what we Christians are — that’s what we heard said about the earliest Christians: ‘See how they love each other.’ I think if we do this work always from our heart, we’re a sign of God to the world.”
MacFarlane-Barrow said he speaks about Mary‘s Meals to young students, many of whom have never been inside a church. “And normally I won’t tell them why it‘s called Mary’s Meals; I just talk about it as a work of love, feeding hungry children. And one will ask, ‘So who’s Mary?’ and I‘ll tell them, ‘the Mother of Jesus,’ and I ask them, ‘Did you know that the mother of Jesus was a refugee once and maybe she struggled to feed her child?’ and we begin to have a dialogue about Mary and her son and it‘s a beautiful thing.
“I think of Mary‘s Meals as a series of lots of little acts of love; none of us on our own is doing anything very spectacular, but all of us doing something is important, even if it’s just small. It worries me sometimes when I talk about this amazing thing, it sounds like God has a plan for me that’s more important than his plan for other people. God has an equally important plan for each one of us, and he needs each one of us for that plan to be fulfilled.”