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Peace Activist Calls for “Prophets,” Urges Spirituality and Knowledge of Foreign Affairs

By Mindy Roll '07 M.Div.

In a September 22 visit to Yale Divinity School, Salvadoran peace activist Jose Inocencio “Chencho” Alas challenged the YDS community to learn about foreign affairs, to seek a deep spirituality, and to be “prophets” at a time when peace is in short supply

“We need prophets,” cried Alas during a short homily in Marquand Chapel. “Lack of prophets is the lack of Spirit.” For his work with the poor, Alas was expelled from El Salvador in 1977, and on one occasion he was kidnapped, drugged, stripped naked, and left for dead on a mountaintop. Early in his career, his mother had told him, “If you don't have enemies, you aren't a good priest.”

Alas was in the United States to receive the Peace Activist Award from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City in recognition of his efforts to preserve peace in El Salvador during the violent aftermath of the country's civil war. His visit to New Haven was arranged by the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.

In his homily, the mild-mannered Alas shared his remarkable story, including an account of his friendship with Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, a champion of the poor and powerless who ultimately became a target of the country's military and wealthy classes. Romero was gunned down in 1980 while celebrating the Eucharist.

In El Salvador, Alas explained, the work of prophets is “to free the oppressed and give good news to the poor” reflecting the Luke 4 text from which he preached. Alas is the founder of El Salvador's Christian base community movement, which has helped reveal injustices and mobilized people in Central America by encouraging laity to read the Bible and apply in their everyday lives.

Alas is currently executive director of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Latin America, which works with low-income communities in Latin America to promote self-sustainability and peace.

Second-year M.Div. student Tamara Shantz said of Alas's homily, “I was on the edge of tears. [There was] something about just being in the presence of his spirit.” Many students commented on the personal warmth and joy exuded by Alas.

Following the Marquand service, Alas gathered with a small group of students for a fireside chat in the Common Room. In this intimate setting, he talked about growing up in El Salvador, becoming a priest, and his expulsion from the country. Alas returned to El Salvador in 1992, with the signing of the peace accords that ended the civil war.

Alas stressed the importance of being knowledgeable about foreign affairs, arguing that ignorance breeds inaction. “It is a sin for a Christian not to be informed of world affairs,” Alas said. “How can you be a prophet if you do not know about foreign affairs?”

Asked how he remained joyful despite the torture he experienced at the hands of his detractors and the poverty he has known, Alas cited the support of his family, the hope of the peasants, and the opportunity to share his story.

Some of the students wondered how they could get involved with peacemaking, and Alas responded, “Really learn the meaning of spirituality.” Learning how to enjoy the earth is part of this spirituality, and this, Alas insisted, is the beginning of peace.

Alas approaches his activities from a framework he calls “the theology of peace,” which he has described in his writing: “The Theology of Peace builds on lessons learned from Liberation Theology's tradition, but departs from its Christocentric focus by asserting principles, values, and ethical commitments across different religions and spiritual traditions that are essential to comprehensive peace making. It sees peace, theologically, as the constant recreation of the harmony between God and humans, between humans themselves, and with nature.”

Alas concluded by inviting students to El Salvador to work with the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Latin America.

More information about Alas's life and work can be found at http://fscca.net .

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