IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO THAT PEOPLE HAD COUNTED TERENCE LESTER OUT. GANG MEMBER. HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT. “I WAS INVOLVED IN A LOT OF TROUBLE AS A TEEN,” HE SAYS. “I GREW UP FATHERLESS AND THE WHOLE NINE YARDS.” THE ALTERNATIVE HIGH SCHOOL WHERE HE USED TO SKIP CLASS IS LESS THAN A MILE FROM HIS OFFICE NOW.
“A lot of these challenges, because of my trajectory from a societal standpoint, all the statistical data would show that because I am young, I am African-American, I wasn’t going to end up anything, you know?” he says. “I even had people tell me that.”
Terence credits summoning the will and power within himself, the support of loved ones and then finding faith in God with allowing him to turn things around. After a series of almost prophetic encounters with people living on the margins, including a homeless man and a guy he shared a jail cell with, he woke up, he says. He went back to school, took on graduate studies and now, at 33, gives back through a nonprofit called Love Beyond Walls that he formed with the support of his wife, Cecilia, 31. “I know what it feels like to be counted out, and I think that is why my heart is so compassionate and empathetic toward those that are considered ‘less than,’ ” he says. “Because I know what it feels like to be the underdog and to have to overcome challenges just to even be noticed. We want to notice people.” They also want to show them love.
“Love is a powerful force,” Terence explains. “God is love, and we are on a mission to take that love into places where there is darkness and hopelessness, despondency and all those different things keeping people in the cycle of being oppressed.”
THAT INITIAL SPARK || It all started on a low day for Terence and Cecilia Lester about 10 years ago. Young, newly married, trying to get their foothold in life — they were feeling a little down, complaining a bit to one another. But then Terence had an idea to flip the situation, get themselves out of the house and lift their spirits: “Why don’t we serve someone who has less than us?” Even when they felt they were lacking, they had excess material things that others could benefit from, he explains. “You know, in this country, the idea is if you’re going through a challenge, the solution is to get more. And that is not really the solution,” he says. “You’re able to do much more by blessing others.”
So they took the few extra shoes and clothes they had down to Auburn Avenue in Atlanta and gave them away. The first woman that they met had been praying for shoes, just Cecilia’s size. With that, the day ignited a passion for service. Years later, in 2013, that passion led Terence outside the walls of the church where he was a pastor, to living on top of a van and on the streets of downtown Atlanta in the dead of winter. The reason: to raise awareness about the lives of homeless people and generate the funds to do something about it.
Love Beyond Walls was born. Today it helps feed the food insecure, clothe people without adequate clothing, provide grooming and laundry services to underserved communities, draw attention to poverty and much more. This December they will celebrate their third year as an official nonprofit organization. The mission remains: “Giving people a voice,” says Terence. “Giving them their humanity and dignity back. When people don’t experience that, there is a hopelessness.”
That’s why he does things that he calls “demonstrations.” For example, living on the streets or attempting to walk from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to poverty. His goal is to help use his experiences to tell the stories of others via social media and his blog, so people see others and the hardships they may be struggling against. He’s a believer that when people stop and take the time to notice what is going on around them, opportunities to serve will appear.
THE COMMUNITY SPEAKS || When asked how his organization came to cover such wide ground from giving out food to providing access to washing machines, Terence explains, “It’s having a relationship with people. The community itself will let you know what it needs.”
A sign at his office reads: “You can’t meet the needs of the people you’ve never met.” That’s why it’s important to him that the nonprofit’s office is right in the community it serves in East Point, Georgia, on the southside of Atlanta.
“When you engage in conversations, you build relationships, not just surface relationships but deep authentic relationships, right? Out of these relationships, you’re able to discover needs that need to be met. Everything that we’ve ever started has been because we’ve had a conversation and then we discovered a need,” Terence explains.
Cecilia points to his experience of living on the streets. “In the wintertime, we didn’t know how many socks people used and the different ways they use them,” she says. “They wore them for gloves; they use them for their feet. They use them for all those different things. When he’s out there… we’d find out what the need really is first-hand.” Being out there also sheds light on people’s emotional and spiritual needs.
“In talking to people sometimes you’d think love doesn’t exist or that there is a shortage,” Terence says. “We want to extend love beyond walls. Love is an unstoppable force. The issue is we’ve kind of erected these walls that keep love contained — contained by classism, racism, sexism.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t break down those walls. “Love has the ability to come in and, I think, provide dignity and affirmation,” Terence says. “People feel affirmed. They get the hope and support that they can overcome the odds. Hope is the ability to see the other side of a circumstance or situation.”
A SPIRIT OF GIVING IN ACTION || Flash forward to this year. It’s before 9 a.m. on a recent Friday in East Point. Outside the unassuming, low-slung building on Main Street that houses Love Beyond Walls, a line of people has formed and wraps around the side of the building. They’re there waiting for assistance.
Inside, a handful of volunteers trickles in from the back. Instinctively, it seems, they start to bring clear bags full of food to the front room. Even 5-year-old Terence II, the Lesters’ son, lends a hand carrying bags up front. A sign-in book is set up at the front table. A bowl of Skittles is set out. A high schooler, the son of a local pastor, stands at the ready to hold the door and help people with their packages.
There’s a quick prayer. Upbeat gospel music is switched on in the background, and the front door is unlocked. And what happens next is a blessing in action.
People who enter to pick up those bags are greeted with a warm welcome by volunteers Cynthia Pace and Vicki Young, who is affectionately known as Miss Vicki. They offer genuine smiles and familiar banter.
“Getting to know people on a first-name basis, we become friends,” says Cynthia, who explains that volunteering with the organization was an answer to her prayers. She had asked God to help her fulfill her calling or destiny. “I feel honored to be here and serve,” she says. “The feeling of the atmosphere, it is like family.”
The people who walk through the doors, they are seen. They are heard. They are shown love.
Miss Vicki hugs folks as they come in and pauses to talk to a few school-age girls. “You’re going to have a good year. Honor roll, okay?” she says. “That’s such a pretty smile.”
Because, of the closeness the women have with the people who come in, they know when something isn’t quite right, or if anyone needs help beyond the food bags. They are quick to offer referrals to other assistance or just a listening ear. “Are you all right? Are you sure you’re okay? Because you know, you don’t always have to be chipper,” Cynthia says reassuringly.
Peanut butter and hygiene kits are popular, yet hard to come by. They are handed out by special request. “Be blessed,” Cynthia calls after people as they leave.
This is a typical Friday morning at Love Beyond Walls. Fridays are food days. Wednesdays, the Closet of Hope is open to people who lack adequate clothing, and then there are Service Saturdays. On those days, Love Beyond Walls partners with other organizations. Lowe’s and a church from Kentucky helped them build a shed to house donations. Jiffy Lube, Infinity Athletics and Radio One have all stepped up to lend a hand for different initiatives.
By the end of the day, Terence and this small group of volunteers will have distributed 71 bags of food provided by a partner church in north Georgia, given out countless bottles of water and hooked several people up with fresh haircuts. Last week they served 136. The people that come to the office on Fridays are brought here by different circumstances. Many learn by word of mouth and come because it is within walking distance of home. There are seniors struggling to find and pay for affordable, decent housing. There’s also a man who moved down from New York. He explains he was tired of “living the fast life.” He’s trying to start over but struggling to make it here. Yet, he’s proud of his daughter who is now attending college.
BREAKING OUT || “There is this misconception that poor people don’t work hard and that is a myth because a lot of the people that we encounter that are struggling or wrestling with poverty are some of the hardest working people we’ve met in our lives,” Terence says.
He came to believe in this even more strongly after he started going out in the community, he explains. He says it struck him that out in the neighborhood was where he belonged when he was in full-time ministry at a church.
“All throughout the week the building was vacant,” he says. “I would walk outside the office, out standing on the street, and I thought this is where I should be.” It reminded him of what his stepfather used to say as Terence got older: “If your ministry starts and stops on Sunday, you don’t have one.”
As a result of being on the ground, over the years, the group has undertaken a bunch of diverse projects. Once, after they received a massive donation of loose coins, they took them to laundromats around town and used the change to help people wash their clothes. Another time, they provided foot care along with free shoes to women in the community who hadn’t had a pedicure in years. He says every action is motivated by one quest.
“How do we connect with people like Christ? He lived that lifestyle. It wasn’t scheduled,” he says. “We have to find a way to everyone. Whether you are a waitress, a school principal — everyone has to play a part to make the world better.”
But there is more work to be done. So, how can others get involved? “Just do it,” encourages Cecilia, quoting a famous tagline.
Up next for the Lesters, they hope to start what they’re dubbing Love Centers. Laundry facilities, a job center, a food pantry, a garden, medical care and even worship services, all under one roof. The purpose: to break down the barriers that exist for people struggling with poverty. Often times when they are referred to somewhere else for another service, “it creates a roadblock,” explains Terence. There are time, energy and transportation issues to contend with when you have to visit multiple places.
The Lesters hope to build the first center in southwest Atlanta that removes some of those barriers for the community. Perhaps one day they’ll sprout up nationwide. But most importantly, Love Beyond Walls is here in East Point for the long haul.
“We don’t want to be an organization that is here two years and then moves on,” he says. “We’re planted in the community.”