The head of the largest Baptist convention in Brazil recently recovered after a serious case of COVID-19. But the good news after weeks of prayer for him comes amid a growing coronavirus outbreak in the largest South American nation.
As of May 12, more than 4.3 million people globally have been infected with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 291,000 have died. In Brazil, more than 173,000 people have tested positive and more than 12,000 have died.
Many Baptist pastors in the U.S. and elsewhere have died from COVID-19, and many others have been infected. Perhaps the most serious case so far among Baptist denominational leaders came in Brazil. As Elijah Brown, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, told Word&Way, the leader of the largest Baptist convention in Brazil was hospitalized by a serious bout with the virus in April. Brown urged prayers for Baptists in Brazil as that case emerged just days after the BWA postponed its World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from this July until July 2021 because of the pandemic.
Oliveira Socrates, executive director of the Convenção Batista Brasileira (Brazilian Baptist Convention) and vice president of the Unión Bautista Latinoamericana (Union of Baptists in Latin America), tested positive on April 3. UBLA is a regional fellowship of the BWA. According to the BWA, the Convenção is the largest of three Baptist conventions in Brazil with more than 8,300 churches and more than 1.6 million members — which makes it one of the 10 largest Baptist conventions in the world and the largest in Central or South America. In all, the BWA statistics show about 12,000 Baptist churches in Brazil with than 2 million members.
The Convenção reported on April 4 that Socrates was “in poor condition of health” after testing positive for COVID-19 the previous day. He spent a couple weeks of a month-long hospital visit in an intensive care unit and on oxygen, including several days of unconsciousness. Both the Convenção and UBLA shared updates and urged Baptists to pray.
The Convenção provided nearly daily updates about his progress on Facebook from one of his daughters, Marianne Cerqueira. She noted steps of progress, and lighter moments like his concern about his hair growing out too much during his hospitalization. And he spent a birthday in the hospital. His daughter noted the difficulty of not being able to be there with him during his hospital stay.
“Pray also for the families like us, who are away from their dearest, due to all this medical safety protocol,” Cerqueira shared in a May 2 update. “Every day, we get more news of people who are also passing through this desert, in addition to all the numbers that we see every day in the newspapers. They are not just numbers, they are people, friends, and loved ones like ours who cry. The way is long and painful. But we are praying like a big family, certain that it’s fleeting.”
On May 6, the Convenção celebrated that Socrates had been “cured from the coronavirus” after “36 days of many fights.”
“All honor and glory only to God for his immense grace!” the Convenção added. “The family appreciates all the love and affection that it received from the hundreds of people during this wilderness.”
Socrates’s daughter updated the larger UBLA community the next day.
“My dad is home and healed of COVID-19,” Cerqueira reported. “Thank you for joining to pray for him.”
As Socrates recovers, the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil continues to grow at one of the worst rates in the world. The nation’s first case — the first case on the continent — was confirmed on Feb. 25 with a man who returned from hard-hit Italy. The country’s first confirmed COVID-19 death came on March 17.
With numbers still rising, Brazil now has the seventh most cases in the world, and the sixth most deaths. And the cases are likely dramatically undercounted since the country lags well behind all other hard-hit countries in testing.
Many observers note that Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, hasn’t enacted as significant of health measures as other hard-hit countries — and he even dismisses the virus as a “little flu” and a “fantasy” created by the media. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have removed posts by Bolsonaro for including misinformation about coronavirus. Despite officials close to him contracting the virus, he continued to hold large rallies without social distancing — even while he repeatedly coughed.
“So what?” Bolsonaro responded in late April after being asked about the growing COVID-19 death count.
“My name’s Messiah,” he added, alluding to his second name, Messias. “But I can’t work miracles.”
Although the outbreak continues to grow, Bolsonaro is easing measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. He has criticized state officials for enacting stricter measures. And he’s issued decrees overriding some local rules to increase the places allowed to stay open — growing first from pharmacies and grocery stores to lotteries and churches and now gyms and hair salons.
However, many church leaders in Brazil outside of Pentecostal denominations haven’t followed Bolsonaro’s pleas to reopen. Most Brazilians support stricter measures enacted by governors, although Pentecostal groups — long Bolsonaro’s key political base — are more supportive of his approach. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil encouraged people to quarantine. The Anglican Church in Brazil prohibited its churches from holding in-person meetings. The Convenção has also encouraged online worship instead of in-person gatherings, as have many other Protestant groups.
“We made the decision not to have worship services, even before the government asked or required it,” Lisânias Moura, pastor of the Baptist Church of Morumbi in São Paulo, told Christianity Today. “And our primary reason was to take better care of our flock, as well as to communicate that we are taking care.”
Although still a minority, Baptists and other evangelicals are growing in Brazil. About 64% of the country claims Catholicism, while about 22% identify as Protestant. Among Protestants, Assemblies of God make up about 29%, followed by Baptists at 9%. Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, is a member of a Baptist church in the western part of Rio that is part of the Convenção.