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Interview: Terroll Lewis, founder, the Brixton Street Gym and Block Workout Foundation

12 February 2021

‘Prison was one of the best experiences of my life, to be honest’

I grew up in Myatts Field, Brixton. I grew up seeing a lot of domestic violence, drugs, and weapons around the house, and cockroaches running around the walls. I moved to my grandma’s, but then I kind of went into more drugs and more knives and more guns and more. . . Yeah. I just became a product of my environment.

Now, me and my cousin live together here, but I’m up and down to Birmingham, because my daughter lives there. Obviously, it’s a lot of headache, but all is well. In time, we’ll be able to travel again.

When I came out of prison, I went to a local playground to work out. I went to a gym, but they told me I had to pay a monthly membership, and I didn’t know what a monthly direct debit was. I never really dabbled in bank accounts as such. I started working out at this playground, and I done a YouTube video, got a few thousand views. People was interested in coming to train with me, and I was thinking, why? This is my safe zone, this is my peace.

Then I thought about it, and I was like: “Wow, there must be more people in my position that don’t know about direct debit, that don’t have money to attend gyms. Why can’t I share this knowledge, and they can learn with me?” I offered a link-up on a Saturday in Kennington Park, and it grew from four people to ten to 20; then we moved to Brockwell Park, Herne Hill, and 50 people turned up, and then 100, and we was all training together.

Prison was one of the best experiences of my life, to be honest. I tell a lot of people that, and they’re just gobsmacked. I was in Belmarsh, a high-security prison. You got lifers there, people coming down from dispersals, coming down for their visits, older guys doing long birds and stretches, and they ain’t really got time to do gang or do up fighting and getting in trouble. I’m glad I never went to a jail like Feltham. People I’d trouble with in the past would’ve been jumping up and down in joy.

I got time to just focus on me, in those four walls. That’s when I started reading, doing poetry, and bits and bobs to keep the time going. I started working out in my cell. That was the foundation before I even come out of jail and started the Block Workout.

I changed my life before I went to prison, that’s the thing. . . So, when I came out of prison, it was back to trying to live a positive life, staying away from the noise, and trying to find my peace, and that stillness. I went back to the area where I grew up, and that kind of gave me the energy to be like: “Yeah, I need to give back to my community. I once created so much toxins in the estate, let me at least heal it in some way.”

Pastor Mimi was a big help before I went to prison, and after as well. She was a mother-figure, a nurturer, a person of love, a person who always tells you to come as you are. And my friend Mikes: his mum was a pastor in the area, and had the church in the middle of the estate. With all the bullshit going on, she kept on keeping on. She was there for us: when we were hungry, we were fed; when we were down, we were lifted up by her. She sparked conversations which weren’t normal day to day. She asked stuff like: “How’s your heart? How’s your mind? How’s your spirit?” I wasn’t used to that.

My Brixton Street Gym is not just a gym, let’s say that. It’s a hospital. Obviously, we got all the equipment, we got classes, with 50 to 60 people in a class. We create jobs for young people. People come and they find themselves. They have conversations about growth and building and repetition — the man who works in Chelsea who’s a banker, or in the City, working out next to the person who’s on tag, or who’s just come out of jail for armed robbery. There’s an energy field around the place which can’t be ignored. They’re like: “I love this energy. I love this place: everyone’s so friendly.” People from all different classes, all different colours, all different religions, and we’re all there to grow, be better.

During this pandemic we give thanks for our social-media platforms and stay in contact. Our motto’s “A community that trains together stays together,” and we live by that: it’s not just a quote. We really do check up on each other. We ask: “How’s your heart? Have you eaten today? Are you drinking enough water?”

I never even knew I was nominated as Men’s Health’s “most inspirational black man of 2020”, and the Evening Standard’s “Next Generation Trailblazer”. Seriously. More time I find my peace by sitting under a tree in a park and reading a book, or just planning. But it’s always a blessing to be acknowledged for the work that you’re doing.

I’ve been nominated for best outdoor gym and best community project in the UK at the end of 2019. At the big awards ceremony, I met some great bodybuilders and fitness-industry people, and made some really good connections; so it’s helped the Street Gym and helped the conversations.

I wrote One Chance so someone can read my story. It’s a blessing to get it out there. It’s not glamorising gang violence. You get to read about the trauma, the wounds, what this Terroll Lewis has been through, what his friends have been through, how it scared him and how it took him down a place of depression.

But then I also get to talk about the transformation as well. It was therapeutic, but it was also pain, to go through the edits and relive your past in your head.

I want people on the road to be able to pick up the book — because they don’t read, you know. A lot of people on the road don’t read. Maybe a young person can read this and have the power to say: “Do you know what? I want to leave this life alone.”

I started reading properly in prison. I sat down and read the Bible. I wrote quotes from Psalms and Proverbs and stuck them on the wall with toothpaste. I started to get into visualisation, meditation, praying.

I remember going down to Pastor Mimi’s church, just listening to the prayers and worship, just being there and being shown love from all the congregation. And I knew if God’s anything, God is love. If the universe is anything, the universe is love. And I was just like: “This is something that I’ve needed when I tried to fill that gap with so much other bullshit.”

I give thanks for the foundations of Pastor Mimi; and asking questions, the foundations of my time now: looking into spirituality or just love and the unknown. It’s spiralled into something of meditation, the way I deal with problems, the way I overcome the waves: breathing above the waves as they come.

These circumstances give us a time to be still, to sit and close our eyes, and not get busy with busy. We get to listen, we get to heal. To be honest, I ain’t really worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow: I worry about what’s happening now — and right now I’m just chilling, I’m about to read one of my books, I’m about to vibe, put on some music as well. I might watch a film. I take it as it comes.

I don’t really get angry, you know. I don’t really have expectations any more; so there’s no disappointment.

Happiness? Just the process of living, man: as it comes. The joy of hearing my mum saying she stopped smoking. The joy of my daughter being healthy. Speaking and learning and starting to meditate. The joy of being able to create ten jobs for young people working in the gym.

I love the sound of my own breath, literally. As long as we’re breathing, we can make changes.

I pray for peace, I pray for energy, or activity. We have to stay active, especially in a time like this. I pray for health and I pray for consistency.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my ancestors: ancestors with the right intentions for me. I’d understand why my bloodline struggles with certain things, then I can set more foundations moving forward, so younger people in my bloodline, in my family, don’t have to deal with that.

Terroll Lewis was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

One Chance is published by Ad Lib at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1913543846.

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