During the past year we have been called to reflect on mercy and its place in our lives, and to find ways to practise mercy towards others through our daily actions.
With mercy foremost in my mind, it has been humbling and heartening to see so many people from all walks of life reaching out to communities across the world through Mary’s Meals, and working together to provide meals in a place of education for more than a million chronically hungry children.
Mercy is at work in the hearts of those who give gifts to buy the food; among the supporters who pray for our work; and in the dedication of the volunteers who give of their time and skills to prepare the daily meals for the children we serve.
The fact that we are able to keep our promise of a nutritious meal to more than 1.1 million children each school day – through a global movement of like-minded people – is testament to the great graces of mercy we have received during this year and I thank the Lord for the global outpouring of love and kindness that enables these wonderful children to work towards a brighter future.
And yet for many of the children the past year has been fraught with challenges and obstacles. Southern Africa is facing its worst food crisis in many years after an awful combination of floods and drought devastated crops, leaving many families of the brink of starvation.
In Malawi, where more than 880,000 children receive a mug of likuni phala porridge from Mary’s Meals each school day, this daily meal has become a lifeline for children whose parents have no food at home.
I visited Malawi in June – a time when families would usually have full food stores just after harvest – and none of the people we met knew how they would survive the coming months. One of them was Yamikani, who, at just 14, has been orphaned and left to look after her two younger brothers – Amos, 12, and Promise, three. She told me quietly about how life had become even more difficult since their harvest failed.
“It’s painful not to have our parents and grandparents here with us anymore,” she said. “We get scared at night time and we are really struggling with hunger. We planted some maize but it died with too much sun. I go into other people’s fields to look for any leftover maize, but find very little.”
For children such as Yamikani and Amos, the nutritious mugful of maize porridge we provide is often their only meal of the day. They never eat before school, and there is rarely anything in the evening before they go to bed, hungry.
Thanks to the compassion of our supporters, even as this crisis continues to unfold, our work allows children to set their sights on brighter futures. Yamikani told me: “Exams are the most important thing. I would like to be a nurse – a midwife.” Not be outdone, her brother added: “And I would like to work for Mary’s Meals!”
I pray that Yamikani and Amos will realise these dreams of paid employment and go on to have happy and prosperous lives. The determination they are both showing in the face of a dire situation brings to mind another inspiring story of hope – one that began in the wake of another crisis almost seven years ago.
I first met Jimmy Belabre in the notorious Haitian slum of Cité Soleil after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which caused widespread devastation and horror in the communities where it struck. Jimmy was head boy at his school at the time, and one of the 12,000 children in Haiti already receiving Mary’s Meals. Jimmy was incredibly open with me about the challenges he faced growing up surrounded by gangs, and I could see how much determination and courage he needed to stay in school.
I’ve caught up with Jimmy many times since and he believes that the daily food he received from Mary’s Meals as a boy allowed him to succeed with his education and avoid a life of crime. He now works with young people in Haiti, inspiring them to stay in school with the help of Mary’s Meals, and uses his talent as a singer-songwriter to share his positive message.
The first time we met, Jimmy told me: “After the earthquake, we didn’t know if we could have a better life again, but Mary’s Meals is still here, so we know we can have food, because people are thinking about us”.
With this simple statement, Jimmy captures the very essence of what makes the people of Mary’s Meals so remarkable – the mothers and fathers who get up early to cook the porridge in Malawi, the volunteers who visit churches across the UK every week to tell our story, the people all around the world who pray for the realisation of our vision, and the countless others who contribute to our mission in their own invaluable way.
There may, in some organisations, be a tendency to consider the delivery of the charity’s service as the real work, with raising awareness and fundraising seen simply as a means to an end. We, however, see the building and support of the global movement as an intrinsic part of our mission and we recognise that lives become better, both for those who eat our meals and those who work and share what they have to support this work.
When we introduce Mary’s Meals to someone who might support our work, we do not do so in a spirit of trying to take something from them; rather, we do so in a spirit of offering them something good. We desire fulfilment and joy for a potential supporter every bit as much as we desire fulfilment and joy for the hungry child that we feed.
It is by sharing the wonderful stories from our global family that our work inspires new hearts and minds, reaching those who share our common sense of purpose – from school children in British classrooms to football fans at Premier League games; from employees in their place of work to the faithful at their places of worship.
I am so profoundly grateful to all those who help us to share news of our mission, and the willingness of people to do so never ceases to amaze me. Earlier this year, the Scottish bishops asked the Holy Father to meet me and I was overjoyed to represent the entire Mary’s Meals family at his general audience in St Peter’s Square.
Later, I was able to share Pope Francis’s words of encouragement: “Avanti! Avanti! Avanti! Che Dio benedica il vostro lavoro” (“Onwards! Onwards! Onwards! May God bless your work.”)
Such words of encouragement are a great source of inspiration to me and to countless others around the world. Their kindness is helping to transform the lives of so many children through actions that exemplify true mercy.
Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is the founder and chief executive of Mary’s Meals