Abu's method to live out Christ’s love on the football field in Zanzibar, Tanzania, is simple: ‘pray, play and say.’ Before each football practice or fitness training session, Abu calls together the players, asks what everyone is thankful for that day and prays for the day. During scrimmages, drills and games, Abu ensures he plays with integrity. Lastly, what Abu says to the players is said with love. Through this three-prong approach, Abu has seen the young men he interacts with open up to the good news of Christ.
Saleem* joined Abu’s morning fitness programme along with a few friends. From a Muslim background, Saleem showed interest when Abu prayed for each session and was always one of the first to volunteer what he was thankful for, which was encouraging to Abu as many players struggled to come up with anything.
One day, a player purposely tripped and kicked Abu—who did nothing in retaliation. “Once we finished that training, I spoke about love, like: ‘Guys: we can love each other,’” remembered Abu. Later, Saleem approached Abu, saying he had learnt a lot from Abu. That Abu not only instructed the players on how to act and behave but led them by example.
Saleem began regularly visiting Abu and knocked on his door one evening as his family started their daily Bible Study. Abu invited Saleem to join them, and afterwards, Saleem asked if he could come again the next day. Later, Saleem requested a Bible to read on his own, which the family gladly gave him. Abu saw Saleem’s words and actions change on the football pitch, and three months later, Saleem knocked on Abu’s door to announce he wanted to follow Jesus.
“Saleem has become a very strong follower of Jesus,” said Abu. “Saleem decided to use his ability to also help other players to follow Jesus.” The young man moved to another area of Tanzania that is predominately Muslim to mobilise, teach and equip a team of 26 players.
Abu, like Saleem, is from a Muslim background and came to know Christ through football. “We see how God is using sports as a tool to reach people,” Abu explained.
When Abu’s father, a sheikh, passed away, “the Muslim community took responsibility for me, to take care of me,” he remembered. Abu was sent to study Islam so he could one day be the sheikh for his area. He excelled at memorising the Qur’an but disliked the competitive and strict atmosphere of the school and pleaded with his grandfather to finish his schooling at home, which he eventually allowed. After graduation, Abu began working for his grandfather’s business but was more interested in the paycheck and the life it could buy than the actual work.
Through football, Abu met Robert, a Jesus follower. Robert invited Abu to play in a football tournament on the condition that Abu changed his name—Abu was obviously a Muslim name, and churches ran the tournament. “So he gave me a name: Johnson,” recalled Abu. He joined the team, and, through team devotions, the other players and the church’s pastor, he learnt about the Bible and that Christians were not the enemy as his Islamic school had taught.
Then “Jesus started to come to me Himself,” remembered Abu. “When I stayed by myself, a voice would come and say: ‘Decide.’ Sometimes when I slept, I dreamt of the voice.”
Convinced it was witchcraft, Abu confronted the team’s pastor, who explained that Jesus was speaking to him and that He loved Abu. Still wary, Abu accepted that the voice might be from God. He began to dream about different Scriptures, and one night, as Abu fell asleep: “I saw somebody appear from the light. Then the first question He asked me was: ‘Who are you?’ I asked Him: ‘Who are you, too?’ He said: ‘I am a King… you are a son of a King.’” Abu remembered the conversation continued for a long time, talking about suffering for the King and seeking the Kingdom before anything else, as it says in Matthew 6:33. Having been chasing money since he left the Islamic school, seeking the Kingdom of God first was a foreign idea to Abu.
Unable to sleep, Abu ran to the church and found the pastor praying out loud for him by his fake name ‘Johnson,’ and calling him “my son.” This simultaneously angered and touched Abu, who had been missing a father figure for most of his life. As Abu explained his vision, he “decided to take off my mask” and tell the pastor his real name and life story.
Despite his shock, the pastor reminded Abu that Jesus loved him and selected him from among millions of Muslims.
“So I said: ‘Okay, I’m ready to follow,’” said Abu.
Bridged by a name
Having spent years studying the Qur’an, Abu dug into Scripture, reading the Bible cover to cover three times in a year. When friends asked him why he was so busy, he evaded their questions, not wanting to admit he was studying the Bible. “I didn’t want to hear the teachings of Islam anymore; I needed to dig for myself,” Abu explained. “I committed myself to read the Bible not only to know Jesus, but I wanted to know my purpose.”
After a year, Abu decided to be baptised. People from the church suggested he be renamed ‘Paul’, but Abu said: “No, I don’t want to have a Christian name. I need to be baptised with my name.” Receiving a new name at baptism is a common practice in Tanzania as names inform others what faith the person was raised in. “When you meet someone,” Aby explained, “you know what they believe in by their name. So if I meet you and I hear your name is Abu, I’m like, oh, he’s a Muslim.”
“Now my name became a bridge to connect easier with my Muslim friends,” said Abu.
Multiplication of groups of Jesus followers is happening! Just as Abu was taught to ‘pray, play and say’ through sports, he equipped Saleem to do the same. Saleem will, in turn, teach others likewise, multiplying the love of Christ on the football field and beyond.