fD Interview

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fD Interview: Jose “Chencho” Alas

July 11, 2008
by Isabel Cowles
FindingDulcinea’s weekly feature offers interviews with intriguing people on the cutting edge of business, the arts, technology and journalism. This week, we talk with Jose Chencho Alas, former Catholic priest and dedicated peace activist from El Salvador.

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Jose “Chencho” Alas has been working for peace all his life. The son of religious parents, Alas studied theology and became a priest. He worked with both the rich and the poor, hoping to enfranchise and mobilize groups that struggle socially and economically. Alas’s work was seen as a threat to gangs in El Salvador, and he was beaten and kidnapped on several occasions. Upon moving to the United States, Alas left the priesthood to further pursue his mission of peacemaking. He is the founder and former executive director of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, and still serves on its board.
fD: What made you decide to become a priest?

JCA: Well, that was more the inspiration of my mother. She was a very pious person. And also, my father: they wanted me to be a priest.

fD: What was behind your decision to stop being a priest?


JCA: I couldn’t continue exercising the priesthood here in the United States because I was considered a Marxist by a very conservative bishop. And once I realized that I couldn’t be a priest, then I really could do the work of God. I was really free to do what I wanted.

fD: Did you always work with peasants in El Salvador?

JCA: I worked a lot with the very rich at first. But it became a kind of a Christian club for them. We were trying to talk about economic issues and change and solidarity but I realized after working very hard for many years with them that they would not change. So I started to work directly with the peasants. And that was really good for me because, after all, my origin is a peasant origin.

fD: What can people do in their everyday lives to promote peace?

JCA: First of all, we must be very aware that we belong to Mother Earth. We are all brothers and sisters with the same origins and the same end. So, there is no reason to believe that if you belong to a certain country, it means that it’s the best or the most important country in the world. Second, we must try to reach people and to understand people in their own place—how do they live, what do they do, what are their values, what are their expectations? If we are not open to the other then we are closed, and we think everything is for us. We cannot do anything for the other.

fD: Do you have any advice for people on how to help the environment?


JCA: Something that’s very important is to think: if I am buying something, is that important, is that necessary? Is what I’m buying going to help the climate, the ecology, the environment? We live by consumerism—buy, buy, buy, buy, and what is the purpose? In this country we produce about 50 percent of the waste in the world. We need to save for our own wellbeing and for the other so that we can have a better planet and a better society.
fD: Who are the people who have inspired you in your life’s work?

JCA: When you consider the life of Archbishop Romero—he was my friend, I worked with him—and how he gave his life for the people, you are inspired by that. When you know people who gave their lives for a better El Salvador: my friends, people with whom I was working, my relatives, you are inspired by that. Also, I would say that I am inspired by my mother. When I was ready to become an ordained priest, she sent me a letter saying, “If you do not have enemies, it means that you are not preaching the gospel.” So with a mother like that, I am ready.

fD: What were your thoughts when you were kidnapped?

JCA: When I was kidnapped, instead of thinking about death, I was thinking about the resurrection. I thought that this was an opportunity that God had given to me to die in his way, in order to share his reflection. So that gave me joy and happiness. I was afraid after the kidnapping.

fD: What were you afraid of after the kidnapping?

JCA: To be tortured is something really hard. I started to think that maybe they would come back for me. When I was working with the rich, I was learning to fly small planes. My trainer told me that if you have an accident, go immediately to another plane and start flying. So, I applied that to my kidnapping. A month later, I was giving talks at the national level.

fD: What gives you hope, in El Salvador and all over the world?


JCA: For me, I would say that my expectation and my hope is that people become organized. That they are educated and they learn about technology, they share what they know. They learn about environmental needs. If they are economically empowered, then they can participate in politics.
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