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The risk that fed a million kids: Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow talks about charity


Photo Courtesy of Mary's Meals

John Burger - published on 10/04/20

Founder of Mary's Meals publishes second book, 'Give.'

Most anyone living in a midsized to large city knows what it’s like to be approached by a panhandler. Apparently, the person is homeless or out of work and just needs a couple of bucks to get a meal or a bus ride back home. In the back of your mind, you might suspect the person really needs the money to get his next fix. And why can’t he find a job, anyway?

Nine times out of 10, the person being asked looks away.

But the founder of an international charity, who has just published his second book on giving, suggests that we might be taking the wrong approach.

Charity involves taking risk, says Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, author of the new book Give: Charity and the Art of Living Generously.

That risk can be as simple as trusting the panhandler in front of you, or it can be represented by the chance you take by sending a donation to an established charity, not being 100% sure that the funds won’t be mishandled.

I tend to believe that any authentic act of charity involves some risk,” said MacFarlane-Barrow, the Scottish founder of Mary’s Meals. “There’s a risk that the money’s going to be misused. There’s a risk that the problem you set out to solve doesn’t get solved. There’s a risk that if you work for a charity someone in your organization does something scandalous and ruins all of our reputations.”

And when a beggar approaches you on the street, “there’s a chance that that person doesn’t really need the help,” MacFarlane-Barrow admitted. “There’s a chance that he’ll misuse what you give him.”

But, he said, charity is love, and if one is acting out of love, “we need to genuinely always try to seek what is best for the person in front of us, not just what makes us feel good at the moment. So it might be, if we’re well-informed about the situation, we might decide this is not the best thing, to give the person some money right now, because we know something about the situation that can really make us convinced that it wouldn’t help the person in the long run. But most of the time it’s not going to be clear cut. Most of the time there’s probably going to be questions, because we don’t really know about the person and their situation.”

In such a situation, one should err on the side of taking the risk, he said. “What’s the bigger risk — that that person really needed our help and we give it to them, or that we do give it to them and it turns out that they didn’t really need it or they don’t use it in the best way? So I think that love compels us to take the risk if in doubt.”

MacFarlane-Barrow’s whole life and career, it seems, is based on a risk he took in 1992, when he and his siblings were watching a news report about the war in the former Yugoslavia. Because the family had been to Medjugorje about a decade earlier, an experience that transformed their lives, they were attentive to the news of civil war involving Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Balkan country where the alleged Marian apparitions took place.

“There was a report about a refugee camp very close to Medjugorje,” he said in a recent interview. “We began saying to each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do something even small to help those people.’ Before we even had a plan, really, we started asking people that we knew, ‘Would you give us food and clothing’ and all those basic things that people in the camps really needed?”

All the donations that poured in filled a shed on the grounds of a B&B-turned retreat center that his family ran. “And about three weeks later we found ourselves driving across Europe in this old Land Rover delivering the goods to that camp,” he said. 

He was moved by people’s generosity, but thought that after taking a week off from work for the trip he could go back to his job at a salmon farm in the Scottish Highlands.

“But when I got home I discovered that God had a completely different plan because the shed was literally filled to the roof,” he said, “and people were turning up at our door with carloads of gifts. And I prayed about it and decided to give up my job, and I sold my house, and somebody gave me a truck. And I said to God, ‘I’ll keep doing this as long as there’s a need and as long as people keep giving.’”

The need never went away, and people kept giving. So for 10 years he and his friends drove trucks back and forth to the former Yugoslavia, and began finding needs in other places where they could help out, including Romania and Liberia. The group called itself Scottish International Relief.

In 2002, the organization began working in the southern African country of Malawi. MacFarlane-Barrow one morning accompanied a local priest to visit the sick in his parish, including a woman whose husband had just died and who herself was dying.

“When we went in, the mother was lying on the bare floor and was surrounded by her six children. She said to us, ‘There’s nothing left for me now except to pray that someone will look after my children when I’m gone.’ And I started talking to her oldest child, Edward, who was 14. At one point in our conversation I asked him, ‘Edward, what’s your ambition?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’d like to have enough food to eat and I’d like to be able to go to school one day.’ And that was the extent of his ambition at 14 years of age.”

MacFarlane-Barrow was stunned, but it was not the first time he’d met children who are out of school because of hunger and poverty — “kids who were working or begging or doing stuff they needed to do to put food on the table.”

But I had never really thought before of that link between hunger and kids being out of school,” he said. “And it was really that encounter that prompted us to start this new mission, which is all about providing a daily meal along with education, a mission that we decided in that very particular way belonged to our Blessed Mother. We gave it to her and asked her to show us how to do it.”

Thus was born Mary’s Meals. Its headquarters is not in some office building in a metropolitan city. By design, MacFarlane-Barrow continues to run the network from the very shed where neighbors dropped off donations for the suffering in Bosnia. The charity is very much a partnership among several groups of people: those in need; their families and communities; the local economy, and those abroad who have the urge to help others.

“At the beginning we had a conviction that it had to be owned by the local community and not by us charging in from outside with a good idea,” MacFarlane-Barrow said. “So the first thing we did was have community meetings in the villages, and we said to the people who came, ‘Look, we have this idea to provide meals for the children in schools, but we’ll only do it if you believe in it and you want to volunteer your time to organize the cooking and all the daily work required.’ And immediately, they said, ‘This is what we want for our children,’ and they began organizing.

“The second thing, which is a principle that lasts to this day, was about the food, that as much as possible we want to source the food locally, to support the local farmer and the local economy,” he continued.

Now 52, MacFarlane-Barrow is married and has seven children. He’s been honored with the Order of the British Empire and was designated in 2010 as a CNN Hero. In 2015, the year he published his first book, The Shed That Fed a Million Children, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

But he continues to be amazed at the generosity of people, a theme he discusses in Give, published last month.

“Just encountering the startling goodness of human beings sometimes seems so startling in the most extreme situations, leaving me wonder at human beings and what makes them like that,” he said. “It fascinates me. Of course I believe we’re made in the image and likeness of God, and he’s placed this charity in our hearts, and we express it in different ways and times. We all have it.”

He also reflects on how, when he visits the places where Mary’s Meals works, he often finds himself — the one who is coming to the rescue — being helped by people who have nothing.

So often I’ve encountered the poorest of the poor, who have nothing materially, and yet have this incredibly deep trust that God will provide,” he said. “And that’s really been a challenge and a source of grace in my journey to meet people like that so often. And so often it’s led me to have a direct experience of God’s providence in this mission of Mary’s Meals. He has never let us down — ever — since we’ve started this work.”

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