Hasan's* method to live out Christ’s love on the football field in southern Africa is simple: ‘pray, play and say.’
Before each football practice or fitness training session, Hasan calls together the players, asks what everyone is thankful for that day and prays for the day. During scrimmages, drills and games, Hasan ensures he plays with integrity. Lastly, what Hasan says to the players is said with love. Through this three-prong approach, Hasan has seen the young men he interacts with open up to the good news of Christ.
Saleem* joined Hasan’s morning fitness programme along with a few friends. From a Muslim background, Saleem showed interest when Hasan prayed for each session and was always one of the first to volunteer what he was thankful for, which was encouraging to Hasan as many players struggled to come up with anything.
One day, a player purposely tripped and kicked Hasan — who did nothing in retaliation. “Once we finished that training, I spoke about love, like: ‘Guys: we can love each other,’” remembered Hasan. Later, Saleem approached Hasan, saying he had learnt a lot from Hasan. That Hasan not only instructed the players on how to act and behave but led them by example.
Saleem began regularly visiting Hasan and knocked on his door one evening as his family started their daily Bible Study. Hasan 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. Hasan saw Saleem’s words and actions change on the football pitch, and three months later, Saleem knocked on Hasan’s door to announce he wanted to follow Jesus.
“Saleem has become a very strong follower of Jesus,” said Hasan. “Saleem decided to use his ability to also help other players to follow Jesus.” The young man moved to another area of the country that is predominately Muslim to mobilise, teach and equip a team of 26 players.
Hasan, 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,” Hasan explained.
When Hasan’s father, a sheikh, passed away, “the Muslim community took responsibility for me, to take care of me,” he remembered. Hasan 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, Hasan 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, Hasan met Robert, a Jesus follower. Robert invited Hasan to play in a football tournament on the condition that Hasan changed his name — Hasan was obviously a Muslim name, and churches ran the tournament. “So he gave me a name: Johnson,” recalled Hasan. 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 Hasan. “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, Hasan confronted the team’s pastor, who explained that Jesus was speaking to him and that He loved Hasan. Still wary, Hasan accepted that the voice might be from God. He began to dream about different Scriptures and one night, as Hasan 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.’” Hasan 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 Hasan.
Unable to sleep, Hasan 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 Hasan, who had been missing a father figure for most of his life. As Hasan 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 Hasan that Jesus loved him and had selected him from among millions of Muslims.
“So I said: ‘Okay, I’m ready to follow,’” said Hasan.
Bridged by a name
Having spent years studying the Qur’an, Hasan 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,” Hasan explained. “I committed myself to read the Bible not only to know Jesus, but I wanted to know my purpose.”
After a year, Hasan decided to be baptised. People from the church suggested he be renamed ‘Paul’, but Hasan 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 here, as names inform others what faith the person was raised in. “When you meet someone,” Hasan explained, “you know what they believe in by their name. So if I meet you and I hear your name is Hasan, I’m like, oh, he’s a Muslim.”
“Now my name became a bridge to connect easier with my Muslim friends,” said Hasan.
Multiplication of groups of Jesus followers is happening! Just as Hasan 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.