I saw myself in the tapestry of Freedom Fighters and civil rights fighters. I felt like I was a part of that fabric – Terence Lester
Terence Lester represents the new generation of civil and human rights activism. Dr. Martin King and SCLC called for the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. It was carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King's assassination. The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds.
This summer the 33-year-old Lester, and his wife Cecilia, trekked 648 miles to Washington in their own personal Poor People’s against poverty. He began following a news conference and prayer service at the front door of SCLC national headquarters on August 20th. He then walked 57 consecutive days, averaging 13 miles per day, before arriving in D.C.
“I’m walking to sympathize and emphasize for people who are suffering poverty in the United States of America,” Lester told me before beginning his journey. “What we have created is a working poor class and the near poor who are two or three checks away from poverty, and what we want to do is bring attention to it. This is something to stand up for the injustices that are happening in our country. I am going to give everything I have every day until I get there because I know how much this means to me; I know how much it meant to Martin Luther King, and I also know how much it means to the people who are suffering.”
SCLC Board chairman Dr. Bernard LaFayette told the Lester’s that day, “We are elated that our young people are taking the lead. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind when he started the Poor Peoples Campaign. He appointed me the national coordinator in 1967, and I am glad to still be here to witness what you are doing.”
Dr. LaFayette added, “This is what SCLC wants to see happen, that is for young people to grasp these issues, to understand these issues and then get involved in The Movement to make a difference; to make a change.”
As reported in a recent NBCBLK story, in 2013 Terence Lester and his wife Cecilia Lester founded Love Beyond Walls, an Atlanta based non-profit organization focused on exposing the realities of the often invisible, by sharing their stories and experiences to increase awareness. The Love Beyond Walls website reveals this mission message:
“We exist to raise awareness of societal needs through technology and storytelling, and mobilize people to take part in it.”
“This is a symbolic walk; this is a walk to raise awareness and to bring people into the conversation that poverty in any city is unacceptable,” said Rev. Brian Bloye, senior pastor at West Ridge Church in Dallas, Ga. “I know this is going to be the toughest thing Terence and Cecilia have ever done. There are going to be moments when they’re going to wonder ‘what in the world have we gotten ourselves into’.”
“It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” Terence told me shortly after his return home. “It was pretty hard; I was often walking in 98 degree weather. When I first started there was a lot of hype and excitement around it, but after the first 10 days it became a burden but I had already committed myself.”
Lester says he saw a lot of impoverished people and communities. He admits he questioned himself often about the efficacy and human sacrifice of his mission.
“I would always run into somebody who would say, ‘Man you are walking for me,’ No matter what they looked like, Whites, Blacks, Asians Hispanics – everybody could relate with the story,” he recalls. “That is what kept me motivated.
Along the torturous trek, Lester had 162 people join him; more than 200 people came out to meet him and chronicled 512 different stories. He filmed 17 personal stories to be included in his upcoming documentary. Terence and his wife and their march against poverty were the focus of 57 media interviews and stories along the way.
“We met families living out of the trunk of their cars on the journey; homeless people that were living in abandoned houses,” he said. “I saw suburban poverty; I saw rural poverty and I saw what would be called urban poverty. I saw all of it.”
The Lester’s struck a chord with the people they met and heard the message behind their march. People donated food and opened their homes to them. More than 54 hotel rooms were donated.
“We probably reached millions of people digitally by the videos produced and shared by social media companies,” he said. “My story to them was mostly a message of hope. The more people I met, the more that I found out just how much poor people don’t feel like they have a voice and their struggles weren’t being heard.”
He continues, “I think its civil rights and I think it is political. Anytime you are fighting for justice, it is to change policy for the betterment of people. I saw myself in the tapestry of Freedom Fighters and civil rights fighters. I felt like I was a part of that fabric. It’s a crime to live in a wealthy country where you can’t even make a living wage. I was literally walking in the shoes of people who wake up every single day and must wrestle with the struggles of life and carry the burden of poverty.
It was a life changing experience for Terence and Cecilia. “I think our organization, Love Beyond Walls, will grow to become an advocacy agency that will speak on behalf of the voiceless, “he said. “And, I will also use my platform to speak and mobilize people.”
Terence lost 30 pounds during his anti-poverty journey, but gained a world of respect and admiration that is destined to fuel a bright and robust future for him as an influential national leader.
“Terence is not just an ordinary fellow who is concerned about poverty as an issue,” Dr. LaFayette said. “He experienced what poverty was as a young child so he is acquainted with it. He is a product of this whole problem of poverty and has been able to succeed in overcoming poverty.”
Before the Lester’s commenced their protest march to Washington in August, Rev. Bloye likened it to a spiritual journey.
“When you are engaging the poor and engaging the less fortunate and the needy, you are coming alongside the mission of Jesus,” he said “Jesus talked about the poor and he hung out with those who were less fortunate. We cannot claim to be true Christ followers if we don’t have a heart for the poor. To do that would truly be to deny scripture.
Rev. Bloye added, “We must continue to raise up more Terence Lester’s all over this community and all over this country. I am thankful for these two world changers.”