Bp. Solito Toquero, 81

December 3, 2023

by IBON Foundation

Much beloved Bishop Solito Toquero, long at the forefront of battling church conservatism and transforming its inertia to momentum for real social change, passed on gently in his sleep while travelling from his home province in Central Luzon of the Philippines. Bishop Sol, 81, was Chairperson of IBON’s Board of Trustees but also so much more.

Solito Toquero was born in a rural barrio of Rizal town of Nueva Ecija on May 31, 1942 – just around the time that Japanese occupation forces were positioning in the lowlands of their town bounded by hills in the north and the mountains of the awesome Sierra Madre on the east. Communist Hukbalahap guerrillas, Philippine Commonwealth soldiers and United States (US) troops would not retake the town until 1945.

As Spanish colonialism brought Catholicism to the Philippines so did US imperialism bring Protestantism – immensely shaping the life and choices of Bishop Sol, Manong Sol, Kuya Sol or simply and endearingly Tatay. The first Methodist service in the country took place in Quiapo on a Sunday morning in March 1899, barely a month after the near mythical first shot that started the Filipino-American War.

Decades later, in 1951, Felicidad Toquero became a Methodist and converted her three sons as well – Hernani (7 years old), middle child Solito (9), and Florvivo (15). In 1959, Solito was a 17-year-old student studying engineering at the Mapua Institute of Technology (MIT). In the first semester of his first year, he decided to stop studying after listening to a visiting American missionary preaching to their small congregation in Manila. What followed was a lifetime in the United Methodist Church (UMC) of making religion and the church more socially relevant.

He returned to Rizal and served as a youth leader in 1959, became a lay missioner in the forests of Casiguran, Quezon (now Aurora province) in 1961, and was approved as a pastor in 1962. His pre-theological studies were completed with a bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan University in Nueva Ecija (nearly six decades later, he would be coming from an event here when he slept and passed away). He earned his bachelor of divinity from Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in Cavite and then doctor of ministry from the Christian Theological Ministry in Indiana in the US, finishing around 1973. He met his wife, Alegria Hembrador, while at UTS and they married in 1970 eventually having a son and daughter.

Even while studying, Bishop Sol was assigned to local churches across Central and Southern Luzon. Upon his return from the US he supervised theological seminars and lectures around the country as field education director for UTS. He then returned to local church work as a pastor in Bulacan and Manila, where he would minister for many years. The probinsyano would be known for his simplicity and humble demeanor but in time also for his strong views on social justice and progressive spiritual leadership.

The Martial Law years in the 1970s until the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 were turbulent and polarizing for the country. In UMC, as with other churches, clergy and lay were split between conservatives seeing political activism as an inappropriate Christian response and progressives embracing a prophetic ministry of resistance to the dictatorship.

The UMC’s focus on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their families owes much to Bishop Sol. From 1997 to 2001, he was in Hongkong as a missionary to over a thousand OFWs as well as, with his late wife, managing a shelter for distressed domestic workers. Under his watch, the Manila Episcopal Area initiated its ministry program for migrant workers. In 2011, he was among the first recipients of Migrante International’s Gawad Migrante.

From 2001 to 2008, Bishop Sol helmed the Manila Episcopal Area which is the largest of three UMC areas – spanning 12 conferences and over 140,000 members amid a larger community of over half a million. After retiring from the active episcopacy, he became vice-chair of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) as well as co-chair of the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum (EBF) of the Philippines. He was renowned for his collaboration with Roman Catholic and other Protestant bodies. Through his teaching at UTS, he also reached thousands of the pastors and church workers it produced.

His mission work writ large spanned the working classes of farmers, labor, and urban poor, indigenous peoples as well as political prisoners, and included advocacy to protect the environment and integrity of creation. He knew how so many issues were interconnected pieces of the same big problem of an unjust society and an oppressive system. When the son of the dictator Marcos returned to power in 2022, he reminded how structures remained unchanged and stressed that Filipinos still faced the “trinity of evil – feudalism, fascism and US neocolonialism”.

Bishop Sol had a leading role in driving the social justice and interfaith work of Philippine Methodists. In an interview in 2016, Bishop Sol said his motivation in ministering “especially to the poor, the deprived, and the oppressed” is to give everyone “the opportunity [to] taste the fullness of life”. Unlike many, the motivation was also matched with lived conviction that the “powers and structures [that] prevent fullness are to be confronted,” “stood, struggled and fought against,” and “done away with and transformed”.

He was keenly aware of the resistance to change of society and of the church. He was forthright about governing elites that, always and everywhere, seek to entrench themselves. The seemingly endless era of “injustice, oppression… environmental destruction, global warming… depriving others of the fullness of life… and other personal and corporate sins of humans” did not faze him and he was selfless and relentless in his dedication to the struggle for justice, human rights and democracy.

These put him in the center of the burning issues and most determined struggles of the times. Bishop Sol was seemingly everything everywhere all at once and became the most visible UMC bishop on political killings and disappearances, land struggles and mining, LGBTQ issues and Palestinian liberation, and many other people’s concerns. A reliable and defiant fixture in street protests and demonstrations, forums and fact-finding missions, as well as international tribunals and lobbying, he was undeterred by being attacked by police in rallies or his family being harassed by state security forces.

In conversation with him two days before his passing – sitting in a cathedral with grand Gothic arches and vaulted ceilings – he mused about how towering heights of stone, glass and iron are unnecessary for the church and might even distance it from the people. The class divide in society between rich and poor, he said, was also in the church and had to be addressed.

He talked eagerly about how the church has to keep transforming and of young energetic church workers he knew that would be more transformative than their elders. He was convinced that declining church attendance would be reversed as its social relevance grew deeper. He also decried the rot that capitalism and commercialism planted in the minds of too many. Even in his twilight he was very much the rebel bishop, albeit a genial and gentle one.

Bishop Sol fought against “structural evil in our country” with the mass movement because “it is the mission of Christ to be in solidarity with the poor, the voiceless [and] not only to minister to them but to be with them.” His life of struggle and compassion displayed this with forceful honesty.

Upon his passing, Bishop Sol joins a venerable pantheon of activist religious leaders who were faithful servants of God and the people until their last breaths.

IBON Foundation is grateful and touched for the time he gave us. He had been a member of the Board since 2009 and became our Chairperson in 2017. Bishop Sol’s modest and gentle manner belied the staunchness of his beliefs and how he firmly guided IBON’s work. When the red-tagging and attacks on progressive organizations started worsening he said simply, and with such earnestness, that he would offer his life if needed to defend all that we stood for.

We miss him dearly but shall always remain comforted by his memory and emboldened by his quiet, defiant courage.