Most of us have been blessed with an incredible gift to be able to see what is around us, to help us navigate, understand the world, and find pleasure. Sight at its most basic form, is a way for us to survive. But we have advanced as a species to the point where we use our sight to enjoy beauty, read compelling stories, play our favorite sports and games, or simply explore our world. What we see collectively as people, is how a community is born.
Unfortunately, as we reflect on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, our eyesight can become a hindrance to community, or worse, a gateway to hatred and violence. We still, after many millennia, make snap-judgments of people, make stereotypes, and form opinions simply based on a person’s appearance. It actually boggles the mind that as advanced as we have become as a species, we still can find ourselves judging people because of their clothes, hair, skin color or any other appearance that doesn’t fit our idea of what is “appropriate.”
(^^^^ Passionate animal lover)
Yesterday I posted a new profile photo on the Portraits of the Jersey Shore Facebook page of a young man. I found his story, along with his photo, to be very compelling and quite inspiring. I wanted him to be showcased as a symbol of what Portraits of the Jersey Shore is about: the reality of being human…that we all have struggles, hopes, fears, longings and battles we face.
To my great sadness, what some people saw was a cigarette, and an endorsement of some kind for unhealthy behavior.
I have spent 30 months conducting and sharing over 630 interviews with a singular mission and passion to blow up stereotypes. Through sharing people’s stories I want to help people to think twice before making judgments of people, and to foster a community of acceptance. Without a doubt, I believe that the Portraits of the Jersey Shore community – now over 13,000 strong – is the kindest, most compassionate, most engaged community to be found anywhere at the shore. Unfortunately, some people were offended that this young father had a cigarette in his mouth. My soul grieved that that was all they chose to see.
What they did not know, was that this man is a young father, whose mother was murdered when he was a boy, grew up in Camden raised by his grandmother, fell into heroin addiction, and moved to the shore to get away from it all. He has a 5-year-old son, and has been battling for 4 years to stay clean for him. This day that I met him at the mall, turned out to be a particularly tough day for him. We talked for 20 minutes, he and I sharing our struggles and fears, and I shared what gives me hope, and how I overcame my demons (faith).
What no one knew, was how nervous he was to have his picture taken, and he only relaxed enough when he had a cigarette. Thus the photos that were keepers were the ones with his cigarette, his mechanism for coping. It is a part of his story, and I will not let him be shamed for that.
He was incredibly inspiring for me, and I prayed for him right there outside of the mall after I took this photo.
However for some, they felt I was glorifying a bad habit. What in reality I was doing was helping a struggling, anxious young father feel loved, cared about, and embraced, regardless of his still-standing habits. I too was once an alcoholic, homeless, and a cigarette smoker, and I know that what this man needed more than anything was hope and dignity and to feel loved.
I share this somewhat lengthy blog post to hopefully keep in front of all of us, that what we need as humans is to feel that we belong. And it is my passion to foster a place in Portraits of the Jersey Shore, where we all can feel safe, and yes, a part of something bigger than ourselves. In short, a part of the community. I will be sharing in a future blog post about how prevalent loneliness is. Researchers consider it to be at epidemic levels, especially among men.
Thank you to every single one of you who get what this page is about, and are a part of this journey. And for those who are not sure yet, of course, you are welcome too. Because I want this to truly be a community for *everyone.* ~ Sincerely, Gregory Andrus.
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