Terrence Lester has waged a war against poverty. Now, for a second time, he’s putting foot to the pavement to make a statement.
An old Chinese proverb advises, “The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.”
Terence Lester, founder and executive director of Love Beyond Walls, knows that mantra well and will certainly keep that in mind as he prepares for a 386-mile journey to Memphis, Tennessee on foot.
Next Saturday, March 3, Lester, with a two-man crew—a driver (Johnny Taylor) and a cameraman (Ali Brathwaite)—will set out on a month-long journey from the Center for Human and Civil Rights here in downtown Atlanta to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis—the site of the Lorraine Motel where Civil Rights giant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain.
Lester has called this journey, a March Against Poverty. The march will honor King’s legacy and life and bring together people from all walks of life and nationalities to engage in a national conversation on racial division and systemic poverty.
Of course, Lester is no stranger to the challenges associated with such a huge undertaking. In 2016, Lester and his colleague Johnny Taylor made a trek across the country to raise awareness about people who are poor in the United States of America. The campaign was called, “MAP16.”
During that march, Lester and crew walked from downtown Atlanta to the White House in Washington D.C. The project garnered tons of support and media attention and even inspired a full-length document in which Lester interviews members in the community about their perspectives on poverty and its impact on this city.
This time, he’s not quite walking the same 648 miles and two-month schedule that was necessary to complete MAP16. But that hasn’t stopped Lester’s mental preparation. He will have to walk 12.5 days, whether rain or shine, for a month. He will have a camera pointed at him for most of the time he is walking.
“Ultimately, I’m trying to center myself and prepare myself for this journey. The mental pressure in preparing feels the same,” Lester said. “Specifically, I’m reflecting a lot on the Southern states. Last time, I walked through a lot of Confederate states, I saw a lot of Confederate flags.
“Overall, I feel like this is a more historic march, though,” he acknowledged. “I’m more reflective about what Civil Rights has meant to black people in this country. I think about King having died at the age of 39 — and his sacrifices to this country. He had a huge heart for those who were impoverished as well as those who were facing civil rights and social justice issues.
“Being that King has impacted my life and the lives of so many others, it feels like an honor to trace a path from Atlanta where he spent so much time to the place where he took his last breath,” he said. “It’s a huge honor. Then, to have the Lorraine Motel to actually grant our organization a permit to host a demonstration there, I really hope that this example encourages some youth to take a stand and inspires them to be active.”
Like MAP16, Lester’s team is also producing another full-length documentary. So far, they’ve completed four interviews for the documentary, including an interview with Janis Ware, the publisher of this publication.
“It’s been really interesting hearing our interviewees’ thoughts about how urgently we need to address poverty, as well as how closely poverty is connected to racism and civil rights,” Lester said. “In order for us to heal racism in this country, we need to have more honest, raw conversations. Not the ones that lead us to anger, but ones that lead us to solutions.
In 2004, Lester and his wife Cecilia gathered two trash bags filled with clothes and walked through the streets of downtown Atlanta.
On Auburn Ave, Terence and Cecilia encountered a homeless woman. “Do you know anyone who needs clothes or shoes?” Cecilia asked. The lady immediately responded, “Of course, I need some right now!”
When this warm-hearted lady rummaged through the two bags, she came across a pair of black shoes, and started jumping up and down with excitement: “I just prayed for a pair of shoes last night, and God answered.”
Terence and Cecilia looked at each other, and at that moment—the concept of “Love Beyond Walls” was born. On the ride home, they discussed ways to mobilize others to join them in moving past the walls that divide people and to take love to people in creative ways. That day, they both became compassionate about work in the trenches, and the desire to love people where they were.
“When you think about poverty, there’s a little over 46 million who live beneath the poverty line, but there are another 100 million people who are living at the poverty line, meaning they are only one paycheck away,” he said. “That’s huge because that’s roughly 150 million people who could easily be affected by poverty. It’s also a huge issue because it’s not like we don’t have the resources to address some of these issues.”
For example, a couple of years ago, Lester researched the cost of Super Bowl commercials and was shocked to find that a 30-second spot cost anywhere between $5- to $10-million.
“It’s amazing that 10 commercial spots could have totally corrected the water issues in Flint, Michigan,” he said. “So again, it’s not that we don’t have the resources. It’s just that we haven’t made it a priority.”
With Love Beyond Walls, the Lesters have made acquiring and sharing those resources a priority.
“Our organization started out as an organization that would address homelessness,” Lester explained. “But not only do we help people who are dealing with people who deal with homelessness, we are also dealing with extreme poverty. We have helped over 250,000 to transition out of poverty, to have a roof over their heads and secure gainful employment.”
Lester recalled a couple who was living out of their car and motel rooms. All the couple had asked for were diapers for their child. Love Beyond Walls provided them with the diapers and a support system they could readily lean on.
Just recently, the family returned to Love Beyond Walls as volunteers, helping others escape the poverty they were once dealing with themselves.
It’s success stories like these that drive Lester and his Love Beyond Walls family to take on challenges like the upcoming March Against Poverty to Memphis — a path that will span two cities that Civil Rights giant Dr. Martin Luther King are inextricably linked.
“Everything that drives me and my family is totally inspired by our heroes and sheroes that sacrificed their lives so that our millennial generation has access to,” Lester said. “I’m constantly in thought about Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Bernard Lafayette (SCLC). I think about Mamie Till, who in the midst of suffering and loss, chose to show her son Emmitt’s bloated and mutilated body. I think of Irene Morgan, who was the first to refuse to give up her seat and in turn, inspired Freedom Riders.”
“In the same sense, in the modern context, we’re living as a modern example of what that looks like in the 21st Century,” he continued. “We see ourselves as a part of a larger tapestry of people who have chosen to give their lives to the issues that matter most.