TOMS RIVER – For much of the first decade of his adult life, a somewhat iconic Toms River man tottered between living in the woods to under bridges in the streets of downtown New Brunswick.
Now 52, Gregory Andrus easily recalls the brokenness that was once his life. He says it’s a matter of second chances that led him to what he considers a vocation and his role in street ministry.
With sandy hair almost reaching his shoulders, Andrus easily looks ten years younger than his age. Meanwhile, there’s no mistaking the old soul behind his bright blue eyes that bear an undeniable sense of warmth and trust.
The world might discourage people from talking to strangers, but the concept seems utterly foreign to Andrus. The same might be said for the over 2,000 individuals who have entrusted the local man to tell their story in photos and words.
“After every person I meet has shared their story,” said Andrus. “I give them a hug, just to affirm them. I let them know they’re not alone. Sometimes, I’ll share with them my own story as a guy who cares about them.”
Andrus published the book “Portraits of the Jersey Shore” in 2018. His collection of portraits and stories about the people he meets represent only part of his work in the community.
While readers wait for a reprint of Andrus’ paperback, they have a chance to see his work in action. Nearly 30,000 people follow “Portraits of the Jersey Shore” on Facebook, where the premise focuses on “highlighting the dignity of all, one story, one post, at a time.”
“I don’t care about how big the following is that I have,” Andrus stressed. “All that I care about is that my followers are very empathetic and compassionate. That’s what I’m proud of – that’s what makes the difference.”
While Andrus focuses on human interest stories about current events like homelessness, the war in the Ukraine and COVID-19, he finds many other things to share with others.
One time, Andrus began chatting with a cashier in Wawa and found himself touched by her words.
“I was just getting a coffee and asked her how she was doing,” said Andrus. “She told me that she and her whole family were in a shelter for domestic violence. One of her daughters was turning 16.”
Andrus shared the woman’s story on his Facebook page, and his followers raised enough money to give the young girl an amazing Sweet 16 party. She had everything from a beautiful dress to a three-tiered cake and a celebration at a local hall. Someone even donated a car to the mom, so they had the means to get around.
“Another time, I met a beautiful family on the boardwalk on Asbury Park,” Andrus shared. “It was a boy and a girl with their dogs, and I took a picture of them.”
The children’s mother reached out to Andrus through his Facebook page and told him everyone loved the photograph. The mom also had a special request that touched Andrus.
“She told me that her husband had stage four colon cancer,” said Andrus. “She asked me to come and take a picture of the whole family together.”
Andrus felt a special connection to the Lewis family. Unfortunately, Matthew Lewis died when Andrus was away on vacation. Andrus dedicated his book to Matthew’s memory.
Like every great storyteller, Andrus has a tale of his own that makes his work come alive even more.
“I grew up in a really rough childhood, and our home wasn’t safe for my sisters and me,” shared Andrus. “When I graduated from high school, I stopped talking to my dad – that lasted ten years.”
Andrus said he moved between a few towns when he lived with his family. He spent a year in Germany with the United States Army and some additional time in Oklahoma. Andrus ultimately returned to New Jersey and landed in New Brunswick because of their music scene.
“I was in a band as a punk rock guitarist,” Andrus said. “We did a lot of gigs, but we weren’t successful enough to live off the money. But it still helped me to channel a lot of my anger and hurt.”
Music wasn’t the only outlet Andrus used to soothe his pain. While drugs were never “his thing,” Andrus turned to alcohol to make himself feel better. Unfortunately, his struggles also left him as what he refers to as on-again, off-again, homeless.
Andrus recalled one of the many bad things that happened to him before he even moved to New Brunswick. At age 20, Andrus had a job but drank away all the money he made. Instead of paying to rent a room, Andrus pitched a tent in the woods across from the Menlo Park Mall in Edison.
At 2 a.m. one morning, Andrus was admittedly drunk when he wandered back to his outside abode to get some sleep. However, he couldn’t wait to shelter from the heavy rains soaking through his clothes.
“I went to my tent where I also had my duffel bag from the Army,” explained Andrus. “All of my belongings were in there that I’d kept, and someone stole it.”
Tears streamed down the young man’s face as he also noticed his tent was destroyed. Andrus could not believe what his life had become. Nonetheless, he remained on the same path for the next eight years.
The worst was yet to come.
Andrus said he would get his act together for a few months and went through different variations of homelessness. Sometimes, he could find shelter; others, he had none. Andrus managed to secure menial wage jobs when he was coherent.
After leaving a party with some friends in New Brunswick in 1998, Andrus headed outside. What happened next was not only a life-changing experience – but a near-death one.
“It was one o’clock in the morning,” Andrus shared. “There was a police chase, and the car they were chasing crashed. The guy got out of the car and ran past me.”
“The cop turned the corner, and the first person he happened to see was me,” continued Andrus. “He immediately fired and hit me in the back of the head.”
As he lay in the street with blood streaming from his head, Andrus once again reflected on his life. Now 28, the severely injured man worried his time was coming to an end with nothing to show for it.
Something can be said about second chances and taking advantage of them.
When Andrus was in the hospital, a girl named Mary came to visit him. The two had been at the same party before the nearly fatal shooting.
“Four months later, I saw Mary at a Halloween party,” Andrus said. “I didn’t know who she was, and she didn’t recognize me as my whole face had been torn up from the pavement.”
The two dated a few times, and Mary realized that Andrus was the guy who got shot after leaving the party. She told him that she’d gone to visit him in the hospital.
“I told Mary that it was one of the most important things she could have said to me,” shared Andrus. “She was there at one of the most important parts of my life. I really loved her spirit, and her kindness, and heart.”
As their relationship progressed, Andrus grew to love Mary and enjoyed her family as well. As devout Christians, they influenced his relationship with Jesus. Andrus went to Ocean Grove, where he was baptized. Mary became his wife and life partner. The couple has two children, Jacob, 12, and Elijah, 9.
Andrus said the shooting and his baptism resulted in another change in his life. Soon after that, he reconnected with his father.
“I turned to him and told him that I forgave him,” shared Andrus. “We both cried.”
After completing a four-year degree to become a pastor from Nyack College, Andrus hoped to lead a church. He couldn’t understand why God wasn’t opening doors for him and felt quite discouraged.
“I was so depressed in 2014 that I could barely get off the couch,” Andrus said. “When I got my first I-phone, I came up with an idea.”
According to Andrus, he reaffirmed his belief in God and the beauty of the world. He decided to start capturing photographs of things he considered beautiful – especially his vision of God at the shore.
“As I began sharing these pictures, my friends kept telling me I was a good photographer,” said Andrus. “I didn’t know anything about photography, but I got really interested in it.”
By the end of the summer, Andrus decided he wanted to move up from his smartphone to something else. So he asked his friends if they had a used camera they could sell for about $20.
A week after his request, a truck pulled up at the Andrus residence and dropped off a package. When he opened the box, Andrus found a brand-new Nikon D 3200 with the lens inside. No note was enclosed.
“I started crying,” admitted Andrus. “I said this as a gift from God – this is what he wants me to do.”
Besides promoting his portraits in print media, Andrus also shares his message with guest appearances throughout the region. The sincerity of his words hit as strong as any pastor delivering a Sunday morning sermon.
Another story told with dignity, as one man’s transformation brings inspiration through his work. Another interview ended with kind words – and an affirmational hug.