Remembering George Anderson: a Jesuit for and with the poor

Photo: America Staff

George M. Anderson, S.J., who died on Aug. 4 at age 86, was for many years the conscience of America magazine, especially in his focus on and commitment to men and women who were poor.

This is not to say the other editors in those years (the 1990s and 2000s) were not concerned with the poor—all of us were. But for George, this was the constant focus of his writing and his life. 

Advertisement

George Anderson came to America after a long career in pastoral ministry and a distinguished academic career. (He received a Ph.D. in English from Yale University in 1961) Both aspects of that background—his pastoral experience and his great facility with language—were brought to bear on some of the most important social justice issues of our time: homelessness, welfare, health care, war and peace, but all with a focus on God’s poor. 

George M. Anderson, S.J., who died on Aug. 4 at age 86, was for many years the conscience of America magazine, especially in his focus on and commitment the poor.

In the days when America’s editors would meet twice a week around a large wooden table at our old headquarters on West 56th Street and propose topics for the editorials in the coming issue, George nearly always—no, always—had a proposal. Often it was more than a proposal—a fully drafted editorial. And almost all George’s proposals dealt with an aspect of social justice or poverty. Sometimes it could be exasperating, as when he would propose an editorial on, say, prison reform, for the third time in as many weeks. But we all knew that he was leading us to look at issues that might otherwise have gone overlooked. I would estimate that half the editorials that ran in those years started as proposals with the initials “GMA” atop them.

George was also one of the most frugal of Jesuits and exemplified the Jesuit vow of poverty. He lived exceedingly simply, dressing in cast-off clothes that he got from the Catholic Worker house or from the Jesuit community “free desk” (a closet where Jesuits would place discarded clothes for other community members to take or leave). His hair was a vast cloud of snowy white, none of which had ever seen shampoo. A bar of ordinary soap, George said, served just as well.

[Don’t miss more stories like this one. Sign up for our newsletter.]

His standard outfit, uniform almost, was an old T-shirt under a worn-out polo shirt, all covered by a tattered flannel shirt. He usually wore an ancient pair of blue trousers with beaten up black shoes. Into the pocket of his flannel shirt was always tucked a clump of papers, Post-its and notes, held together tightly with a rubber band. Why spend money on a notebook? His eyeglass frames were almost always broken. He also had a backpack that puzzled his colleagues for years—adorned with random stickers and graffiti. He admitted one day at lunch he had rescued it from a dumpster. 

We all knew that George was leading us to look at issues that might otherwise have gone overlooked.

His office was, frankly, a mess: piles and piles and piles of papers, Post-it notes (including one that said “insert disk into computer”) and books stacked precariously on one another. I never knew how he found things, but he always did. Somehow it all fit into his commitment to live simply. Who needs a fancy file cabinet? I’ll just pile things here. 

For one year, when I was a Jesuit regent (a Jesuit in formation working full time between the years of philosophy and theology studies) at America, George was also my spiritual director. One of my closest Jesuit friends told me that George was the holiest man he knew, so I figured he would be a good director.

As it turned out, George wasn’t a “classic” spiritual director, and I’m not sure if he was trained in spiritual direction, but just spending time with him was inspirational. And no matter what I told him in our monthly meetings, no matter what failings or sins or struggles I confessed, he was always encouraging. Always. At the end of every session he would furrow his brow, look down at the ground, shake his head and say: “Well, gee, Jim, you’re doing so much good. Keep it up!”

Even though it paled compared with all he was doing: writing, writing, writing (he somehow found time to write a marvelous book called With Christ in Prison: From St. Ignatius to the Present, on the history of Jesuits who were imprisoned for reasons of justice or under persecution) and living the life of the vows.

George, humble to a fault, hard-working to be sure and holy to be clear, was not perfect—not even the saints were. And as he grew older he could be occasionally testy, especially when an editor had rejected one of his proposals to write, once again, on poverty. But we knew where that testiness came from: his love of God and God’s poor. Servant of God Dorothy Day, his great avatar (and friend) could be testy, too. But even his anger was tempered by his mild personality: Many of us were stunned at the time he threw a pencil across the editorial board table. Nikita Kruschev’s shoe made less of a ruckus. 

I see George as a standard for all Christians who desire to live simply, care for the poor and serve the one whom St. Ignatius called “Christ Poor.”

But George Anderson was no pushover. This morning a friend sent me this story: “I was going to confession at church in Manhattan where George helped out. The way the line formed I did not realize that George would be my confessor until just before it was my turn. When I saw his name I feared he would be way too easy on me, because he was so gentle a man. No such thing. Before I left the confessional he offered: “You know, you could come to confession more often.” 

I have missed George since he left America, and I see him as a standard for us here, for U.S. Jesuits and for all Christians who desire to live simply, care for the poor and serve the one whom St. Ignatius called “Christ Poor.”

May he rest in peace.

– James Martin, S.J.

•••

As I was beginning my career at America, George Anderson was coming to the end of his. (He retired as an associate editor in 2011.) He was a wise and kindly guide to 56th Street and its then (still?) intimidating history. Alarmed one morning by the state of my spartan office, he arrived the next day bearing a maroon armchair so my guests (at the time, mostly George) could have a place to sit when they dropped by for a chat.

In his quiet, determined way, George raged for justice in what he wrote and how he lived his life as a Jesuit, a journalist and as an office neighbor.

I found out soon after that the lovely antique was something he salvaged from a dumpster, presumably from one of  the nearby hotels on Sixth Avenue. I joined a long line of others so gifted with George’s recoveries—at least those that did not end up in his legendary office. He could not abide waste of any kind, whether in life or in print or on the streets of New York that he loved to wander and marvel at.

In his quiet, determined way, he raged for justice in what he wrote and how he lived his life as a Jesuit, a journalist and as an office neighbor.

– Kevin Clarke

•••

More than 10 years ago, shortly after I started working at America, George Anderson, S.J., asked for my help. As a newly minted editor, I was surprised that someone as accomplished and knowledgeable as George would come to me. Typically, I looked to him for inspiration.

As a passionate advocate for the poor, George was a consistent voice working to challenge those who read his words in the pages of America to look up from those pages and see the face of Christ in the people around them. He wanted all of us—his fellow editors included—to live more mercifully, more peacefully. George knew what needed to be said and he said it. He just needed help formatting it in Microsoft Word. That’s where I came in.

George was a consistent voice working to challenge those who read his words in the pages of America to look up from those pages and see the face of Christ in the people around them.

What George wanted from me was a quick lesson in how to copy and paste text within a document. I walked with him down the hall to his corner office at 106 West 56th Street, which was filled with eclectic art and sacred images and many, many papers. Before we began, he proceeded to pull out a used envelope and began to take notes of our conversation on the clean side.

When we finished, he folded the envelope and added it to a small stack of other scraps of paper, which were sandwiched between two thin pieces of cardstock for protection. He then wrapped the whole thing in a rubber band and put it in his back pocket. I can’t say for sure, but I would bet that he did all this while wearing an oversized plaid flannel shirt, provided by the free clothing bin at the Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side.

George was fighting our “throwaway culture” before we called it that. He refused to squander anything—not paper nor clothing, not time nor attention. He was too busy building the kingdom of God to worry about buying office supplies or building a wardrobe. Would that all of us would learn to copy him.

– Kerry Weber

•••

News of George Anderson’s death roused in me gentle, reverential memories. Like Charlie Chaplin’s famous character “The Tramp,” George demonstrated how a meek, unprepossessing character of fragile build can create indelible memories.  

John L’Heureux once wrote of Avery Dulles as a figure built of wire-hangers with headlights for eyes. The description might equally have been made of George, with the added note the wire was noticeably bent out of line at the waste and the neck. With the bent skeleton of aged man, George was nonetheless in daily motion, moving about town on God’s work.

With the bent skeleton of aged man, George was nonetheless in daily motion, moving about town on God’s work.

Like many Manhattanites, George was a walker.  The flatness of the island and the relative paucity of cross-town transit encourages two-legged transportation. But George’s willingness, actually determination to walk to his destination was remarkable because he appeared so fragile. He would walk from our Midtown offices to the Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side. On weekends he would walk from his residence to hear confessions at far-flung parishes across the island or, perhaps with some help from the subway, in Brooklyn.

George enjoyed his walks. His observations on the city streets filled him with insights he wanted to share. A regular contributor to the magazine’s “Of Many Things” column, he commented on the city landscape, its history and daily life. If he hadn’t been a poor man and unfashionably dressed, the French might describe him as a flaneur. 

At one point, however, readers beyond the Hudson grew impatient with being force-fed so much New York; and the editors decided we—not just George but a number of us, myself included—had to give up casual commentary on our home town. Writers may write well about what they know best, but we editors acknowledged there might be a limit. George agreed and found other topics he could write about.

When the weather was bad, when others might head to the gym next door, George got his exercise walking the corridors of America House and up and down stairs between its nine stories.

Despite his apparent fragility, he possessed great stamina and greater determination.

Despite his apparent fragility, he possessed great stamina and greater determination.

In the basement laundry room, we kept large open boxes where community members would leave unwanted articles of clothing. The discards could easily fill up the boxes because George would take them only one or two at a time in his backpack to deliver to the Catholic Worker or some needy friend of his. Clothing the naked was a commitment he had to keep in the simplest, most personal way.

George’s office was a fairly large space looking out on 56th St. It was the habitat of a scholar recluse with the slots of its bookcases stuffed with papers, clippings, reports, and so on. On one wall, however, was a special collection of books, all the selections of the Catholic Book Club for the full length of his existence. With a Ph.D. in English from Yale, George was a suitable guardian for the collection. Today it resides in the American Catholic Collection at Boston College’s John J. Burns Library.

George did not live at America House, but at the 98th St. Jesuit Community, in a sub-community with Dan Berrigan and others, many of them social activists who had lived together since the 1970s. When the 98th St. residence closed, George and his housemates moved into a new small community downtown. Along with them moved one of our promising young editors, Luke Hansen, S.J., a social activist and writer of the next generation. George’s commitment to that community expressed the love of what Dan Berrigan called “the brotherhood,” where friends in the Lord strengthen one another’s Christian virtue and grow in the love of God as they serve God’s suffering people wherever they meet them.

– Drew Christiansen, S.J.

Advertisement

The latest from america

The Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., from June 2001: William Emmett LeCroy, 50, on Tuesday would be the sixth federal inmate executed by lethal injection here this year. (CNS photo/Andy Clark, Reuters)
U.S. bishops call the application of capital punishment “completely unnecessary and unacceptable.”
Kevin ClarkeSeptember 22, 2020
Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Father Tony Flannery (CNS photo/Paul Haring/CNS photo/Irish Catholic)
The C.D.F. said today: ‘We did everything possible to dialogue with Father Flannery. It wasn’t always easy.’
Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 22, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic is adding to the financial woes of Catholic schools in inner cities. But better management and creative fundraising may save them, writes Lance L. Lee, a parent of two children in Catholic schools.
Lance LeeSeptember 22, 2020
Sixth-graders sit at their desks on the first day of classes of the new academic year at Our Lady of Victory School in Floral Park, N.Y., on Sept. 8. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
With many public schools still in virtual mode, parents are taking a new look at Catholic education. But Michael O’Loughlin reports that the reprieve from declining enrollment may be temporary.
Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 22, 2020