There is something eternally bonding about a shared near-death experience, which is how I first met Michael Cromartie.
This was 15 or so years ago, before I had moved to the nation’s capital for an up-close look at power. Cromartie had called to invite me to one of the Faith Angle Forums he hosted for a select group of journalists and scholars to discuss religion in the public square. I happened to be driving when my cellphone rang.
“Kathleen, you don’t know me, but I’ve got a fabulous invitation for you!”
His enthusiasm was such that he was nearly chirping, and I do believe there was a choir of angels humming in the near-distance when suddenly another car shot out of nowhere. I was forced into the median, across two lanes of oncoming traffic and onto the grassy shoulder on the far side of the road.
Whew! Shaking and gasping for air, I realized I was still on the phone with Cromartie, who was sputtering and trying to determine what had happened. Was I all right? Yes, no, I don’t know, I think so.
For the next 30 minutes or so, we chatted away, he in his office and I still sitting roadside in my car, about everything under the sun — life, death, God, gratitude. When a conversation suddenly swerves from cordial hellos to “Oh-my-God-that-person-almost-killed-me,” one is allowed to bypass several centuries of pleasantries and cut to the chase. We also nearly died laughing, both from relief at my having thwarted death and appreciation for having forged this strange and serendipitous friendship.
Yes, of course, I’d love to attend the Faith Angle Forum, I nearly shouted into the phone. How could I not?
Miguel, as I called him, delighted in retelling this story — often, and each time slightly more embellished. Another decade or so and I’d have been killed instantly and resurrected from the dead. The forums, meanwhile, became a gift to a handful of journalists invited to convene with religious scholars, rabbis, imams, priests, preachers and prayer leaders. Cromartie, who was vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Evangelicals in Civic Life program, felt strongly that the public’s perception of journalists as unfriendly toward religion and especially toward evangelical Christians, though not unwarranted, was a reflection of the media’s lack of exposure to and understanding of America’s faithful rather than willful animus.
He was, in other words, one of Washington’s relatively unknown elves who work diligently and without fanfare to make the world a better place. The forums, which were his brilliant idea, were held twice a year in Key West and more recently in Miami’s South Beach. In between lectures — three over three days — invitees convened for lunches, cocktails and dinners interspersed with free time for carousing, bike riding — or dancing. Cromartie loved to dance.
There are stories. Atheist Christopher Hitchens, who died nearly six years ago, was a chapter unto himself. There were at least two romances — then marriages or pending nuptials — that blossomed over the debate table. Epic tales of nightlife that will remain in the cone of silence, as well as ghost stories told one night under the spell of moonlit waves lapping against the dock.
Those were glorious, fun-filled, intellectually stimulating days that probably have benefited the country indirectly through the enlightenment of more than 220 journalists from roughly 30 newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks.
Cromartie, though ill, had promised another this fall, but when I saw him recently, it was clear there’d be no more under his watch, if at all. The ravages of the cancer he had been fighting for more than two years were etched in his hollow cheeks and in eyes that betrayed a deep sadness. We pressed our foreheads together as if to connect our minds more fully, perchance to discover some elusive bit of information that would solve the riddle and reverse the course of events.
“It’s horrible, horrible, just horrible,” he whispered.
I doubt Cromartie feared death because he was a man of enduring faith, though he may have grieved the loss of a life well-lived but not yet finished. When he died Monday morning at 67, he left a void that will be felt by hundreds of friends, admirers and, of course, his family. For them — and even the greater world for which he steadily prayed — the loss is immeasurable.
And, yes, Miguel, it was a fabulous invitation.