And so at exactly 6 p.m. last Tuesday, he climbed down the side of the tired old church bus and stepped onto the parking lot outside Love Beyond Walls, the nonprofit he and his wife, Cecilia, founded in 2013 after serving the homeless population for nearly a decade.
As a light rain fell to the black ground, cheers and applause rose to a blue-gray sky.
Lester smiled, grateful for the nearly 50 people who braved rush-hour traffic to make it to the College Park office building and celebrate his efforts.
“This is amazing,” said Lee Joiner, who was there with her 8-year-old daughter, Avery. “We are so honored to celebrate this night with Terence and Cecilia.”
The Joiners, residents of Smyrna, were early supporters, dropping by on New Year’s Day with a donation.
“Everything Mr. Lester and his organization are doing, they do for the glory of Jesus,” Joiner said. “I love the mission. I believe in what they want to do and want to support that.”
A path toward a bus
Get on the Bus: Mobile Makeovers isn’t the first campaign the 32-year-old father of two has waged on behalf of the homeless nor will it likely be his last.
Both he and his wife share a heart for this type of ministry. It is why they founded Love Beyond Walls in the first place.
Get on the Bus, though, comes a year after Terence Lester conceived the idea to take up camp in the old “tent city” underneath the I-20 bridge near the downtown Grady curve.
For three days, Lester walked and talked with the 50 or so homeless, men and women he now calls his friends, about their lives. They needed jobs, they told him. Clothing. A shower.
Lester would return home, naturally, but he never forgot the stories of those he met. Robert Brownlee. Etroma Leeks III. Willie Pitts Davis. He visited them. He called.
Three times a month, he and Cecilia mobilize volunteers to help. They hand out clothing. They serve sandwiches and hot bowls of soup. They cut hair and connect them to programs that might help them get off the street.
In September, Terence Lester said a local pastor happened to mention to him that he knew of a church in Madison that wanted to get rid of a bus.
I’m interested if they still want to give it away, Lester told him.
After perusing Love Beyond Walls’ website, the Madison pastor was on board.
“This is the work that Christ would be doing,” he told Lester.
Days later, Lester arrived to give the bus a test drive. If he liked it, it was his.
How much do you want? Lester asked.
Give me a penny, he said.
Lester gave him a dollar, a donation from one of the church’s elders.
Big dream, strong will
Back at Love Beyond Walls, in a room where everyone is encouraged to think outside the box, the Lesters dreamed a dream.
What if they could turn the bus into a mobile makeover unit that could crisscross the state, giving the homeless a place to rest, to eat and shower, to boost their self-esteem?
You know you’re going to have to do something, Cecilia told him.
“Sleep on the bus,” she said. “If you believe in this, you’re going to have to sleep on it.”
That got Terence thinking about the number of people that they could reach in a month, about what it would take to equip the bus with plumbing, running water, a shower and closet.
“I think God wants me to do it for an entire month,” he told his wife.
And so began his 30-day quest to raise awareness and the $50,000 he thinks he’ll need to complete the renovations.
It began Dec. 14. Terence Lester, an air mattress, port-a-potty, small heater and the laptop he used to enter daily blog posts.
He settled near the back and stayed there, coming down only to clear his head, stretch his legs, and visit his wife and children on Christmas Day.
They missed him, but as Cecilia put it: “When he sets his mind on something, he’s going to see it through.”
This time around, though, he struggled. This was heavy. This was lonely. There were some near-freezing days and a lot of wet ones. There were people watching.
“There were a couple of days when I wanted to give up,” Terence said.
Once, he said, he even sought spiritual counseling. He listened to a sermon. A minister prayed with him over the phone.
Brownlee and Leeks dropped in with encouragement. He’d helped them get off the street. Think of all the others he could reach.
And so he remained. For 30 days, detailing his experience on his blog.
Now he just wants to get that bus up and running, hopefully by the end of March, when he plans to kick off a “Love Tour” across the state.
“Hopefully out of this we’ll be able to build partnerships with other cities, start to empower people to address the needs they see around them to serve people for Christ,” Lester said.
For now, though, he’ll simply enjoy this moment among his friends, supporters and church family.
“I feel a sense of relief,” he said. “I feel energized and excited but a little proud as well. This took a lot of discipline and stick-to-itiveness. I’m at the finish line. I feel like celebrating.”