Mabel Lourdes Mena Fonseca is a 29 year old Aymara Quaker living in El Alto, Bolivia. Mabel plays the ancient Andean flutes, las sampoñas. Like many Quakers in Bolivia she is poised to use all her talents for the good of her people. Here is her story:
Do you want to know how my ministry of music began? Actually, I launched my music career in the church. I started at 18 y old and I didn’t know a thing about music. I started with a malto, a flute with 2 rows of reeds that you blow into. Now I play the sampoña with 3 rows and a chromatic octave. I have experimented with the Sanka and the Toyo which are even larger cousins of the sampoña.
At first we were 3 Quaker friends who played together, Sarah, Eva and Mabel. We knew each other in Rio Seco, part of the Altiplano. The 11 of April in about 2001 was our first concert in the large church Max Paredes (the mother church in La Paz). We then played for another event in our own small church called Vida y Paz on 25 de mayo which is Mother’s Day in Bolivia. Mother’s Day is special for me, because my mother is the breadwinner for a family of five. She works hard everyday selling food in La Ceja. She sets up the stall as early as 7:30 and works on her feet until dusk. In 2001 our church was still young with only 20 attending on Sunday. I felt so happy the day of our concert because we had a great turn out, many people came who hadn’t been seen by Friends before. Attenders invited their mothers and grandmothers. Mothers invited their children, and it ended up being a good publicity for the church. And I gained confidence. There’s nothing like getting hugs from the people you love to boost your ability to play in public. And imagine a concert in the church where Friends are praying and clapping.
Since then we formed a larger band called Messengers of Peace, Mensajeros de Paz. Our group has metamorphosized many times, with some musicians leaving and others joining. We remain all women, and we are an ecumenical group, with Christians from other faiths joining the Mensajeros. It’s our intention to give Christian music across the different beliefs. In Bolivia some of the churches that have joined us in the last 10 years are Cristo Viene, los Nazarenos, Iglesia Dios Boliviana, los Bauptistas.
It was hard at first because we (Sarah, Eva and I) come from a Quaker perspective. I was protected in the Meeting and hadn’t been exposed to liberal ideas like I learned in Cristo Viene. Leaders were afraid we would adopt these beliefs. Our pastors were afraid of negative influences of drinking alcohol or hanging out people who act like stray dogs. I’m comfortable with conservative Friends. We stayed in the church and proved that we could handle being an interdenomination group. But throughout the years the Friends were the backbone of the Mensajeros de Paz band.
Actually, among los Mensajeros we don’t talk about church doctrine. Christians have many differences — why waste time arguing different practices that were started before I was born. Now we are 6 players (2 are Friends) and we talk about God, how to find peace and how God saves. At the end of life we all want salvation. We consider salvation to be an avenue to arrive at peace. People suffer so many conflicts, for example within our families. We aspire to give songs that will offer paths to peace, or at least give some solace to those in pain.
Salvation is also to know you are liberated. Some Christians are extremist. These sisters emphasize the coming of Christ and the apocalypse. They speak about the Last Days on Earth and without repenting, you will go to hell. Our music is a different ministry.
I think music contributes a lot to finding inner peace. Of course it depends on the type of music. Christian rock can excite you. I want to offer music that can stimulate and alternatively can be relaxing. When you listen to our CD and hear Liliana’s charango with sweet and fast chords, the music can lift you out of your personal woes. Sometimes just repeating the words from the Bible over and over in pray gets stale. The same verses sung in melody can give the same words a new feeling, even a new understanding.
I want to tell you personally I struggle a lot in my family. My parents will come occasionally to Vida y Paz on Sundays but they aren’t Christian, the Friends lifestyle is just something they tolerate. My grandmother, who I loved would follow the pagan festivals in Bolivia and my aunts still do to this day. My abuela died 2 years ago. My aunts belief in the God of Water. On certain days of the year, if you follow the customs of Pachamama (Earth mother) you are supposed to offer and ask for water. There’s a parade people chant “we are here” to some saint, I don’t know the name. Then there’s an important Sept festival called Kiquakas, where many and my aunts participate. They invite my siblings. My father did attend Friends community for a while and he understands my faith. Still it pains me that we are a divided home. In the Bible I’ve read how Joshua was distraught over the Israelites paying homage to other gods (3,000 years ago). Joshua speaks passionately about how “in my house we serve Jehovah.” I feel so alone when praying at home: I can’t say that in my family we serve the one God. Still I have faith that they will turn around.
My first priority is to help my family. But I should say that God is first, above all priorities. My younger sisters are now adolescent. I ‘m so pleased when they come up to me and ask for advise. They’ll say out of the blue, “I’m thinking of doing this…” and we’ll talk about it. I feel immense happiness when guiding adolescents. I work with them according to what they initiate. They might say an idea, and I’ll suggest “Why don’t you do it this way.
I had a rough patch of time finding a career. With help from the university I was accepted in the social work department about 2007. I was working one year and then studying, my studies were off and on. What a relief in 2009 when I was offered a BQE scholarship. I now can study and continue pursuing music.
I want to do so many things. I have a few more years of study and then I could go in many directions with social work degree. My mission isn’t limited to the church. Those who need the most are outside of the church. I could work in the court setting, or in a multidiscipline center, or in stopping child abuse.
I also can imagine developing the mission of the Mensajeros de Paz. We could offer music along with profession skills. Think of our many skills, Eva is a teacher, Sarah getting her psychology license, another knows theology, and I’ll be a social worker. With music we could help within a retirement home or a day center for underprivileged children.
We are all channels, on the path of understanding God’s presence and receiving Divine Love. Our music can change lives. If I’m feeling down, I start playing rounds of music blowing on my flute. How can you receive God’s love when you’re depressed? There’s a beautiful song we perform, Desde de que te conoci (Since I came to know You). It’s not a song we wrote, but we’ve composed it in an original way, adding our own highlights. It makes me break out in joy when we play this piece. With music as a guiding light, I am prepared to be a messenger for God.