Editor's Note: Inocencio " Chencho" Alas, the Salvadoran peace activist, visited YDS in September. Following are reflections about Chencho by Rob Fisher '98 B.A., '05 M.Div., who met Chencho in August during a trip to El Salvador with other clergy from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, which shares a companion relationship with the Diocese of El Salvador. An ordained deacon, Fisher is serving as curate of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in San Marino, CA
Chencho Alas: Creating Peace by Living It
By Rob Fisher '98 B.A., '05 M.Div.
Chencho Alas has a sign hanging inside his home in El Salvador. It is a wooden board decorated with little Salvadoran birds and animals. Metal hooks for holding keys line the bottom edge, but only one of them has any keys hanging from it. At the top is a hole cut in the shape of a heart. The sign says: "Donde estan las putas llaves?" It means, "Where are the #@&%!* keys?"
I met Chencho in August on a trip to El Salvador with four other clergy from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. We went to see first-hand the work that is being done to help the people there.
El Salvador is a peaceful country today, but it is still recovering from its long, bloody civil war. The wounds inflicted during those years remain very fresh. And, more recently, El Salvador has been afflicted by gang violence and devastating hurricanes.
Before I met Chencho, I had heard his story. A Catholic priest in the 70s, Chencho ministered to the poor peasants in the town of Suchitoto. Suchitoto was one of the most dangerous parts of El Salvador during the years of conflict. When my traveling companions and I visited this town earlier in the week, we heard horrendous stories from the people we met there. One man shared his experience of the time his father was wrongly designated as an enemy of the guerrillas, and the family had to pack up in the middle of the night and leave town for their own safety. We also heard a woman tell of how her family huddled inside a giant tree, hollowed out in the center, to find safety from the military bombings. We drove the road that used to be a battleground between the military helicopters in the air and the guerrillas on the ground. Today it is a busy road, but during the war it was a no man's land.
We saw the ruins of the formerly grand hospital of Suchitoto. Bombs destroyed it during the war, and it is now being overtaken by jungle flora. I walked among the walls that remain. The local man who was walking with me shared that he was born there, and that his cousin was working inside on the day it was bombed. His cousin died in the bombings.
When he was a young man ministering in Suchitoto, Chencho was the first Salvadoran priest to be kidnapped for his work with the poor. He was tortured, drugged, and left for dead, naked in a trash heap.
To the dismay of his kidnappers, he did not die. Rescuers found Chencho alive and brought him to a place where he could recuperate. And when he was ready, he returned to Suchitoto to continue his ministry. Eventually, as civil war in El Salvador began to intensify, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was an old friend, warned Chencho that he should leave the country for his safety. Romero himself would be shot to death while standing at the altar, saying the Mass only a few years later.
Chencho had to spend years in exile, but now that peace has come to the country he has returned. He spends half of his time in El Salvador and half of his time in Texas. Still a Catholic, but no longer a priest, he is married and has grown children. He has seen the worst that mankind is capable of, yet he smiles easily and loves to make jokes. His face is young for being 70 years old, and his wrinkles are the kind you get from years of laughter.
Like his irreverent key holder, Chencho knows how to break tension with laughter. He also knows the value of small things. When he says grace before a meal, he gives thanks to the chicken who gave herself for our nourishment, and to the land that yielded the beans and the corn that he and his guests will enjoy eating.
My first view of Chencho was through the window of our trusty Toyota microbus. We had driven that day from San Salvador to the coast. The tropical heat had us all dripping with sweat, which was all the more sticky from the mosquito repellant on our skin. This area is Dengue Fever country. We drove off the highway and onto muddy dirt roads in search of Chencho. Our driver, Victor, leaned out of his window and got the attention of an older woman who had strong Mayan features and almost no teeth. He asked her where "Padre Chencho" was, and she replied that he was several blocks away. We found there a man whose white hair and bright yellow shirt caused him to shine amidst the crowd of people where he was standing. He saw us immediately and waved.
Chencho hopped into our microbus without missing a beat and started telling us about the region and about the communities of peace that he has helped develop. There are 87 communities, and they include people from both military and guerrilla backgrounds living together. They are part of a cooperative, called La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa. Chencho told us that bringing people together is all about a theology of life, and that through this focus he has seen people turn from being makers of war to being makers of peace.
And just as Chencho speaks of a theology of life, it is the way he lives his life that teaches the greatest lesson. He creates peace by living it. He lets himself be a part of the living body of Christ in the world, and that is why he continues to see hope emerging out of the darkness that all-too-often surrounds El Salvador. To be with Chencho was inspiring to me, and it gave me hope that we can overcome the challenges that the world throws at humanity if we only stay close to the simple and core truths of our faith. We can be people of light, like Chencho, bringing healing to the world.