IN 1992, NOT long after I had started writing a column for The Houston Post, I received a letter from a reader named Michael Dale, who was very much in disagreement with something I wrote. Unlike most of the ranting and often profane letters and calls I got (this was before email and social media) from right-wing readers, the letter struck me as a sincere person’s sane plea for dialogue.
So I responded, as I often did, by inviting him to join me for a meal, a cup of coffee or a beer so we could discuss our differences. He was clearly surprised but he accepted and we met at a restaurant not far from the Post building.
We became friends. That friendship lasted even as I moved to Washington and back to Houston while he moved to Atlanta and New York, Baton Rouge and, finally, Austin, where he died early Wednesday morning.
IT WAS AN improbable friendship. Michael was white, straight and middle-class, a son of the South (devoted fan of University of Alabama football). He was reared in the Southern Baptist Church.
I was the gay son of Mexican immigrants, a former migrant worker who grew up Catholic and had become disenchanted with the whole organized religion thing. And I never was into college football. About the only thing we had in common was that we were both Astros fans.
I can’t claim we were close, close friends. I never met his family or other friends, for instance, and he never met mine. We never hung out together, but over the years, he always reached out to me, and we’d get together for a meal if we could manage it. We even went to see the Astros play at Yankee Stadium once.
When he moved to Austin a little more than a year ago, we talked about meeting more often, but the only visit we managed was getting together for coffee once soon after he learned of his cancer diagnosis.
While hopeful about his prognosis, Michael made it clear it didn’t look good. But he was not about to let his situation get him down. He had recently married, his job and financial situation were good, his family was supportive. And, above all, he still had his faith, which would not be shaken.
FAITH WAS probably the Number One topic of conversation in our chats, emails and text messages – faith, and politics and how the two had unfortunately become entwined in recent decades.
“I call out these so-called ‘leaders’ for not teaching the gospel yet driving fear and loathing among their community,” he wrote once. “That is not who we are called to be. I have my convictions based on the faith delivered once for all and they do not include political power. The good news I have been given I want to share with others, then let God do the work, not the state!!”
Many of today’s right-wing Christian leaders are “charlatans, very wealthy ones at that, who will be judged harshly,” he said, adding, “I pray they fade into oblivion quickly!!”
Michael detested Donald Trump, calling him a creation of FOX-News, someone who is willing to exploit the sense of victimhood among middle-class and lower-income whites. He never voted for him.
I never ceased to be wowed by Michael’s insights and his ability to express his thoughts, and I often told him so.
“I find myself struggling to string together the words needed to formulate a response to your amazing email,” I wrote to him once. “At a time when shouting is the accepted form, when finger-pointing and the airing of grievances have replaced deliberate debate, you present me with this very sane, provocative and well-written share airing of ideas, concerns and – yes – anguish. That you chose me as your audience filled me with a deep sense of gratitude and humility.”
Though heartbroken about the state of today’s politics, Michael remained optimistic.
“Biden will be inaugurated,” he wrote a year ago. “Life will continue, families will enjoy their time together, people will get married, children born, some people will leave this earth yet through it all, God is sovereign.”
That, he said, “brings me such comfort, especially recently.” Meaning: since his cancer diagnosis.
That coffee-shop meeting was the last time we were to get together. He mentioned perhaps sharing a meal at an outdoor venue on one of his next trips here, depending on what the situation was with Covid.
After that, there were only a few text messages. Among them was this from September 20: “I ask you forgive me if I ever harmed you over the years. Never my intent.”
To which I replied: “I can’t think of a single time, my friend.”
I REGRET I did not take the opportunity to ask for his forgiveness in return. Typical self-centered me. Maybe I’d not done anything that would require forgiveness, but I should have been as generous as he was by giving him the opportunity to decide that.
I am so sorry Michael is gone. I am sad I will not be able to listen to his calm, soothing voice of reason and sanity and Christian love. I am sorry I never got to see him together with his new bride (his eyes beamed whenever he talked about her!).
I once told him I was glad he had reached out to me that day in 1992, and that he continued to reach out.
And I am so happy I wrote a column almost 30 years ago, the one that raised Michael’s ire enough to write to me.
I will miss his kindness, his decency and his goodness.