FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Nilson do Amaral Fanini, sometimes referred to as “the Billy Graham of Brazil” and a former president of the Baptist World Alliance, died Saturday, Sept. 19, during a trip to Texas to visit family members. He was 77.
Fanini was admitted to a Fort Worth-area hospital with pneumonia on Sept. 13 and subsequently suffered a stroke, according to a report in the Religious Herald, newsjournal of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Fanini was pastor of the Rio de Janeiro-area First Baptist Church of Niteroi, which grew to more than 7,000 members from the beginning of his pastorate there in 1964 until he left the church in 2005 to start another church, Memorial Baptist, also in the Rio de Janeiro area.
He was elected to numerous terms as president of the Brazilian Baptist Convention.
Preaching fluently in Portuguese, Spanish and English, Fanini led more than 1,000 evangelistic crusades in 100-plus countries, including Brazil, other Latin American countries and as far away as India.
On weekly television and radio broadcasts, Fanini was seen and heard widely across Brazil and in several other Latin American countries.
Fanini was a 1958 graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. “Right here [at Southwestern] is where I got my vision for the world,” he said in a 2002 interview at the seminary. “I didn’t know that God would use it in such a way, praise the Lord.”
The ministry of First Baptist Church in Niteroi also was known for its outreach to slum children, for medical clinics, food distribution, a school where the poor could learn professional skills and for prison ministry.
Fanini liked to say that Jesus preached “the total Gospel to the total man … soul, mind and body.”
During his 1995-2000 presidency of the Baptist World Alliance, Fanini emphasized evangelism, religious liberty, social justice and human needs ministry. His travels included a 2000 trip to Cuba where he and others in a BWA delegation met with Fidel Castro and a 1999 trip to Rome to meet with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, said Baptists have lost “a beloved ally in world evangelism,” a man who “was, at heart, an evangelist who believed the Gospel was the greatest cure for the world’s ills.”
“Brother Nilson sought to live out the principles Jesus set forth in Matthew 9:35 — teaching, preaching the Gospel and healing their diseases. He had a heart of compassion for those who were the most desperate -– orphans, the homeless, the hungry — and the lost. He led his church to provide an aggressive set of ministries to serve the human needs of those in his city, but he never lost sight of the major focus of personal evangelism. He knew that the greatest need anyone has is salvation from sin and new life in Jesus Christ,” Chapman said.
“His church launched and/or sponsored more than 100 new churches and missions,” Chapman noted, adding, “Under his leadership, the Brazilian Bible League distributed more than 25 million Bibles in Brazil alone.
“We will miss his vital partnership in the ministry. Jodi and I join with Baptists around the world in praying that the Lord will comfort his wife, Helga, as well as his children and grandchildren. We will miss him as a friend,” Chapman said. “He was truly a man of God.”
International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin described Fanini as “a giant among Baptists who spanned an era of growth in Brazil to impact the world for Christ. Much of the pioneer growth of Baptist work in Brazil was due to the leadership of Dr. Fanini who partnered with Southern Baptist missionaries in evangelism and church planning. His years of leadership of the Brazilian Baptist Convention expanded through his calling a giftedness as a global evangelist, eventually leading the Baptist World Alliance and literally touching the world. A great preacher and passionate evangelist, his legacy will be cherished and remembered by Baptists around the world.”
Former Southern Baptist missionary Perry Ellis, who worked with the Brazilian Baptist Convention as director of mass evangelism from 1970-84, described Fanini as “my closest friend for 40 years.”
Ellis said he was privileged “to provide help to a man that I consider to be the premier evangelist in the world, second only to Billy Graham. The Christian world has lost one of its finest examples of the fruit of Baptist missions. Through his weekly television and radio broadcasts, Fanini became pastor to the nation of Brazil. As president of the Baptist World Alliance he took the name Baptist and our evangelistic mission to a new level. In Brazil the press started referring to the Christians of Brazil as Baptists.
“Dr. Fanini graduated from Brazil’s ‘West Point’ and from the highest level of the Brazilian War College,” Ellis continued in a statement to Baptist Press. “Had he chosen to do so, he could have become a great military leader and even president of Brazil, but instead he chose to become a local pastor of a Baptist church to do the work that he believed the Holy Spirit had called him to do.” According to an Encyclopedia Britannica article, Fanini also held a law degree from Fluminense Federal University in Rio.
Ellis added that Fanini was a soccer enthusiast who, in his visit to Texas to see a new granddaughter, brought her a uniform of his favorite team, Vasco. “In everything he did, Nilson Fanini was larger than life. He was a natural born leader but he was one of the most genuinely humble persons you could want to know,” Ellis said.
“Dr. Fanini was a dedicated man of God, who was a leader and encourager to literally millions of believers around the world,” said Michael Chute, professor of journalism at Union University who served as a Southern Baptist missionary in Brazil. “Not only was he an outstanding evangelist, pastor and preacher, but he was a friend to everyone he met. He loved the Lord and loved people and was always an encouragement to missionaries who came to Brazil to work alongside Brazilian Baptists to reach that country for Christ.”
In addition to his wife, Fanini is survived by a daughter, Margaret of Bedford, Texas; two sons, Otto of Houston and Roberto of McKinney, Texas; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Sept. 26, at Iglesia Bautista Getsemani in Fort Worth followed by memorial services also in Brazil.
Compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston.