Inocencio’s parents were Boholanos who migrated to Mindanao before the Second World War. They settled in North Cotabato, where his father engaged in planting abaca for making hemp. His mother was a school teacher at the elementary school where Inocencio studied.
“Boy,” as he was fondly called by family and friends, was the eldest of 5 children reared in a very religious Catholic home. At a young age, he entered the seminary at Noling, Cotabato City for his high school education and continued on to study Philosophy at the Regional Major Seminary in Davao City. On his third year of college, he took his regency – a period when seminarians are allowed to leave the seminary and decide on their priestly vocation – and transferred to the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, where he graduated.
Boy was in college when students were stirring up the campuses with exposes of government shenanigans and calls for democratic reforms. In Cebu, he became involved with the Khi Rho, a youth organization whose advocacy work for the peasants was close to his heart. He would join the group in trips to Carcar, Cebu, to learn about the farmers’ struggles.
Eventually, he joined the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) and became active in its organizing and advocacy work. The organization expanded and chapters were set up in the Visayas and in many places in Mindanao, including in his hometown. His father, at that time the incumbent mayor of Makilala, once saw his son speaking with authority in a gathering of farmers. While he admired Boy’s dedication to uplift the condition of the farmers, he became afraid for his son’s safety.
When martial law was declared, however, Boy refused to tow the collaborationist line that the FFF leadership espoused. Meanwhile, Vatican II and its call to serve the poor, deprived and oppressed sectors started to awaken church people. Influenced by the progressive theology of liberation, the Church’s message of social justice brought hope and courage to many. In the Philippines, amidst the despoliation and abuses of martial law, church people brought the gospel of liberation to the people of God in the chapels and rural communities.
Boy found his way to the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), a national organization founded by the Association of Women Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AWRSP) in 1969. He worked as lay assistant, helping the nuns of the RMP craft and shape its vision of a “free, just, peaceful and egalitarian society,” among others. He travelled with the nuns all over the country and helped them organize the peasants and the lumad communities. “Know your rights!” was one of his battle cries; he believed that by raising the people’s consciousness of their human rights can they be empowered to defend themselves against the oppression and exploitation of the dictatorship and its powerful cronies.
Boy’s dedication to his work and selflessness endeared him to the RMP community. His calm persona and sense of humor often helped to alleviate the hardships and threats to personal security the RMP workers faced daily. He would play an original song (Pinagba ang Lawas) on his flute to cheer flagging spirits.
It was while working with the RMP that Boy met his wife Angie,a school teacher from Cebu. They married in simple but beautiful and meaningful rites that was a “protest” to the usual expensive weddings. Three co-worker priests officiated at the wedding held in a spartan seminar house, happily witnessed by family, close friends, RMP sisters and co-workers who brought their own food.
In 1982, while getting off a bus in Davao City, Boy was abducted and illegally detained at the Metropolitan District Command Headquarters and at Camp Catitipan in Davao City. Because he failed to report for work at the RMP office in Butuan City, friends and co-workers searched for him at the camps and hospitals, to no avail. On the 10th day since he went missing, Boy’s father, who was also looking for him, passed by the MetroDiscom Headquarters when Boy himself spotted him through a window of his jail cell. Boy called out to him, and his father immediately went in to ask to see him. The authorities at first denied Boy’s presence but relented when told that he had seen Boy through the grills. It was then that he was allowed to see Boy who looked haggard, was in a very weak state, and had bruises and contusions all over his body. Later, Boy narrated that he was tortured by his captors who wanted him to admit that he was a certain “Enciong” the military was looking for. Through the help of the RMP sisters and human rights groups, Boy was soon released.
Boy’s untiring effort to serve the poor and marginalized was tragically cut short on November 21, 1983. He was on board M/V Cassandra from Agusan, travelling with a group of 12 religious and lay people bound for Cebu to attend a seminar. A passing typhoon sent giant waves pounding against the ship and caused it to keel. After about four hours on rough waters, the boat sank, drowning over 200 passengers in the waters off Surigao, including everyone from Boy Ipong’s group. (Among those who perished were four nuns of the Religious of the Good Shepherd, all Bantayog martyrs: Srs. Mary Consuelo Chuidian, Mary Concepcion Conti, Mary Virginia Gonzaga and Mary Catherine Loreto). Survivors said they saw members of this group help many of the passengers put on their life vest. Amidst the chaos, they were last seen huddled together in prayer.
Boy’s life served as an inspiration to many people. Sr. Consuelo Valera, ICM, a co-worker, believes that his wide experience and deep grasp of the peasants’ situation ably directed the RMP’s task of social transformation. On its Silver Jubilee celebration in 1994, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines awarded him posthumously for his untiring service and dedication to the masses.