The Sinner's Pew

They call it the “Sinner’s Pew” and it’s common to find one, all the way at the very back, of many of the local churches in Tanzania. It’s used as a social stigma—a type of “holding place” for people that the church doesn’t quite believe have made a full conversion from the Islamic faith yet. New converts to Christianity from Islam are often expected to sit in this pew for at least seven years—proving their commitment to Christ—before the church will baptize them, or marry them, or disciple them in any way. It’s a test of shame: how much are you willing to endure in order to “prove” your true heart for Christ.

view of empty pews in an African church
Because Ali was one of these converts, he was well-acquainted with the Sinner’s Pew. He, like many others, had been born into his Islamic faith and raised in its precepts. He was a genuine seeker, believing his attempts at good works would win him favor with God. He began working for Billy and Leah, and began to dialogue, with another young man, Prosper, who also worked for Delaughters and was being trained in discipleship & evangelism principles. Prosper’s burden for young Ali’s salvation led him to engage often in conversations about the life-giving freedom of relationship with God, that can only be found in Jesus’s life-saving work on the cross. He found Ali a willing and accessible place to apply much of what he was learning from the discipleship training. God also pursued Ali through other mediums. Billy’s parents bought him a Swahili Bible during one of their visits. Ali read it six times, cover to cover, in one year. Eventually, God won his heart, and Ali left his Muslim faith to profess belief in this Christ that brings freedom and access to God. He excitedly approached the local church about his decision, desiring to be baptized, but instead of being welcomed into his new family, found himself relegated to the Sinner’s Pew. Ali clung to his new faith in Christ despite many other setbacks. He changed his name to Stanley, but the found his new life to be full of challenges. Immediately following his conversion, his parents demanded he marry, in an attempt to bring him back to the Muslim faith. They found him a Muslim wife, and he took her with him to the church to be married, but the church refused to marry them. The couple was soon married elsewhere. Soon after, they discovered they were pregnant, but within a few months, the new bride miscarried. Because she was a Muslim, she was within her rights to leave him, believing him to be cursed. Because of the shame of his divorce, his parents disowned him--sold all of his belongings, as if he had died, telling him “You are no longer our son.” A month later he found out he was HIV+, a result of his time in the Tanzanian military.

The church continued to reject him, at his lowest point in life, and despite all he had given up for the sake of his faith. Through his discouragement and shame, a penalty worse than losing his family, Stanley clung to his Christ. Prosper continued to encourage and disciple him, and the bond between the two men became stronger, as only brotherhood in Christ can do. Stanley began meeting with Prosper regularly and eventually left the Sinner’s Pew to join Prosper in his house church. As the house church grew and developed they decided to launch their own church plant, and Stanley became one of the original establishing members of the Moshono Christian Church. Now, Stanley no longer sits at the back of the church, shamed in the Sinner’s Pew. Instead, redeemed by the blood of Christ, he oversees the youth group, discipling teenagers in the same way Prosper discipled him.