Terence Lester has spent almost half of his life helping people experiencing homelessness live with dignity.
As the pandemic began to overtake cities and stretch hospitals to capacity, he understood the existential challenges the homeless would face in trying to avoid contracting the deadly virus. A simple obstacle: hand washing.
“The coronavirus hit and the public places where they went to wash their hands – restaurants, libraries, stores, etc. – have been closed, ”said Lester, who heads Love Beyond Walls, an award-winning Atlanta-based organization that rethought how to provide and advocate for the homeless.
An idea came to his wife, Cecilia Lester, as she stood in the family’s kitchen one evening last year: to place portable sinks all over town so the homeless could wash their hands. no problem. Soon after, they created Love Sinks In – portable sanitary units that carry 5 gallons of water and come with hand soap.
Lester found a vendor in Florida who built the sinks, which cost $ 100 each and were paid for primarily through donations. Rapper Lecrae bought the first 15.
Initially, 51 sinks were placed under bridges, in parks and other places around Atlanta where the city’s 3,200 homeless people gathered.
The concept was so well received that Love Sinks In can now be found in 52 cities, including Dallas, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.
“The laws created this framework that being poor or living in homelessness means that you are a criminal or that you have done something or that you should be feared or held at a distance,” said Lester, 38. “So there was this social isolation that they experience.
“Our work is deeply rewarding. We work primarily with black people who face systemic racism that leads to impoverishment. So I always ask myself: can we do more, involve people in this issue of homelessness? “
The idea of ’more’ is ‘what keeps us going,’ said Cecilia Lester, 36. And more comes from Love Beyond Walls in the form of portable showers. Terence Lester said he asked a homeless man how he kept himself clean and told him he would “pray for the rain so he can collect the rainwater in a bucket”. And with this, the idea of portable showers was born.
They’ve created a prototype that will hold 250 gallons of water, have a tankless water heater, and serve in yet another way Love Beyond Walls helps homeless people.
“I’m in awe of how young the Lesters are, with such an open heart, to do the work they do,” said Pamela Hill-Wright, who has volunteered with Love Beyond Walls since 2017. “The feeling to work with them and do something for someone else is indescribable.
The Lesters’ role as advocates for the homeless is a long way from where they started. Terence Lester said he was almost out of high school and had embarked on a life of trouble with the law and gang membership. An encounter with rural Georgia’s legal system sent him down a path he never expected.
At 20, Lester was brought before a judge and saw other men in orange overalls sentenced to years in prison.
“When it was time to face him,” Lester recalls, “he looked at me and my mom and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I’ll give you a second chance. This is your only second chance. ”
By the time the judge offered him a reprieve, Lester said he had already decided his life should take a different course.
With this opportunity to restart his life, Lester, who had run away from home, returned to live with his mother. He wrote poems that spoke of his pain – and his hopes. He began to interpret his poetry and was praised for its depth. When a friend invited him to church, he performed once again – and was inspired to join Word of Faith Cathedral, where he was mentored by Bishop Dale C. Bronner.
Soon after, he met Cecilia while visiting her college campus.
“Eventually he invited me to his church,” she said. “He was already on the path of a straight arrow” to become a minister. “He had dreams. But I didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife.
Love won, however, and they got married and began to run a small church in suburban Atlanta. As part of their ministry, the Lesters have worked for the homeless, or as Terence Lester calls it, “love beyond the walls of the church.”
But building a church was a challenge. A friend at dinner asked the Lesters, “What’s working for you?” and they said, “Working with the homeless”. The friend asked, “Why not focus on this?” And so, they did. They created Love Beyond Walls, which innovates at every opportunity. The organization offers a Mobile Makeover program that provides hair care and grooming services, and a Mobile Stay program allows homeless people to temporarily take shelter in the organization’s mobile home.
Her Closet of Hope provides clothing for community members and school uniforms for students. They also offer free access to washers and dryers, as well as drinking water. Their Love Feeds program, run in partnership with Warehouse of Hope, provides groceries to up to 500 families in need per month.
Lester estimates that he has helped more than 320 men get off the streets by reuniting them with their families or placing them in shelters.
“Homeless people are very disturbing to me,” said Cecilia Lester. “We don’t all have homes and a lot of people are a paycheck away from being homeless. … Doing this job was not part of my plan. But it’s amazing work.
Phyllis Williams, who was homeless for a year, benefited from Love Beyond Walls for seven years and referred people in need to the organization. Williams, 62, said she was not “rich or poor” but needed help. “Without Love Beyond Walls, she said she and her family ‘wouldn’t have anything today’.
In the years that followed, Williams said she referred to the organization of others struggling with financial instability. “I told them, ‘Go to Love Beyond Walls. Pastor Terrence will help you. If he doesn’t have it, he will get it. They were a miracle.
Lester, who is studying for a PhD in Public Policy and Social Change at the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, has written two books on the realities of homelessness and service: “I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to invisible people ”and the upcoming“ When we are: the power to seek justice together ”.
The Lesters’ efforts have already trickled down to their children, Zion, 12, and Terence Jr., 10. The family ran into a homeless man on the street as they were driving through downtown Atlanta five years ago. The parents noticed that their son, 5 at the time, was crying in the back seat. When asked why, Lester said his namesake pointed to a man holding a sign in the street and that made him “sad because this man has no home”.
Lester asked if he wanted to speak to the man and the son said yes. Lester partially rolled down his window and invited the man to the side of the car where his son was sitting. Terence Jr. told him, “I just want you to know that I am your friend and that I love the poor.” And the man smiles. “Young man, you made my day,” Lester recalls telling Terence Jr.
Around the same time, Zion started a campaign when she was in second grade for her classmates to collect change to give to the homeless when they encountered them.
“Sometimes the best education is what you grab and pick up just by being around,” Lester said. “We always include our children in our work. We have a lot of conversations about giving back, but it’s more about knowing that they learn by watching. And it developed a level of empathy in them. And that’s what we all need.
To follow NBCBLK sure Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.