Berkeley, California holds a special place in our hearts. Mike and I (Maria) were students, met, and married there. It’s also the place where Mike became a Christian.
While vacationing in Berkeley recently, we took a walk on campus, intending to visit the building where it all happened. Lo and behold, we came upon mountains of rubble being removed by enormous excavators: the demolition of Tolman Hall! There was a weird and sad symmetry to the loss of both the building and Mike’s memory of it.
Mike has a remarkable conversion story, and I never tired of hearing him tell it back when he could remember it. Raised without traditional expressions of religion, he considered himself an atheist, much to the dismay of his Christian friends who sought to help him understand the Gospel. Instead, as a sophomore English major making his way through the sequence of required literature courses, Mike listened to his professor explain the themes of the sacred poetry of the 17thcentury, and his heart began to soften. Without fully being able to explain it, he knew without a doubt that one day he went to class in Tolman Hall, entering as an unbeliever but exiting as a believer after Professor Feingold’s teaching of John Donne’s poem, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.” For the first time, Mike understood what Christ’s death on the cross meant for him. In hindsight, we call it saving faith. He had never set foot in a church except to be the ring bearer in his babysitter’s wedding, but his heart was changed forever under the fluorescent lights of a classroom in a mid-century building on the north side of campus.
It turns out that Mike Francis and Tolman Hall have a number of things in common. They were both born in 1962, and they both looked fine on the outside while their insides told a different story. Tolman Hall, an award-winning brutalist design, was seismically unsafe and would likely have been a death trap in an earthquake. Inside of a seemingly healthy Mike, on the other hand, were clogged arteries that led to his near-fatal heart attack and subsequent anoxic brain injury in 2015.
The comparisons don’t end there.
The demise of Tolman Hall didn’t come, fortunately, through an earthquake. Demolition of the old and starting over on another site made more sense than renovation from both a financial and a design perspective. Mike, however, faced an earthquake and demolition of a different sort when oxygen deprivation took away most of his memory and knowledge. The imagery of a wrecking ball and excavators taking down a once proud building is all too apt for Mike.
Though the Berkeley campus has lost one of its iconic mid-century buildings, the space once occupied by Tolman will be redeemed as a nature area. Mike, however, has not had the benefit of a comparable redemption since his brain injury. Although his faith and pastoral gifts survived his injury unscathed (as we would expect, since the Holy Spirit was never deprived of oxygen), Mike was not allowed to continue in any capacity as a pastor at the church he had led for 15 years. Mike can’t help but be the shepherd that he is, speaking relevant truth and Scripture, encouraging, praying for, and offering the hope of Christ to all he meets. It broke our hearts when the church leadership declared him “unfit to serve” and claimed that Mike’s participation would be “awkward for the new pastor” and “awkward for new people.” Try as we might, we could not understand the decision to functionally defrock Mike Francis based on those reasons instead of the Bible. It is a tragic loss for Mike, for the church, and for the watching world.
We continue to pray and to wait for the Lord to redeem both the gifts that Mike retains and his longing to serve the church. Join us, please, in praying Psalm 138:8: The Lord will fulfill his purposes for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.
There are other points to ponder as we consider Mike Francis and Tolman Hall. The comparison that began with the loss of a building and the loss of Mike’s memory extends even to the person for whom the building was named, Edward Chace Tolman.
Edward Tolman (1886-1959) was a psychologist whose research and theories paved the way to a branch of psychology called purposive behaviorism. He “believed individuals do more than merely respond to stimuli; they act on beliefs, attitudes, changing conditions, and they strive toward goals” (S.A. McLoud).
Tolman was also known for leading the faculty faction that opposed the McCarthyist requirements of the University of California that faculty and staff sign an anti-Communist loyalty oath. They refused to sign, not because they were Communist sympathizers, but because of principle, viewing it as a threat to academic freedom and free speech. Regardless of tenure, he and 30 others were fired in 1950, and others resigned in protest. He too, it seems, was functionally defrocked. (Tolman sued, and the professors were reinstated in 1952 after the California Supreme Court decided in their favor in Tolman v. Underhill.)
Tolman’s actions proved his psychology research just as well as his rat mazes: his behavior was guided by belief more than stimuli. The unseen freedoms held greater value than the obvious incentive of job and paycheck. Christians, in a way, and enabled by the Holy Spirit, engage in a form of Tolman’s purposive behaviorism. We call it walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” is the iconic definition of faith that opens Hebrews 11, followed by examples of it in saints like Abraham and Moses. Likewise, Christians through the ages have strived to follow God’s ways even when they don’t immediately make sense, because we have the “conviction of things not seen.”
Was it not by faith that Tolman refused to sign the McCarthyist loyalty pledge? Was it not by faith in seismologists’s findings that the University of California Regents demolished a building that, from the look of it, was both perfectly serviceable and architecturally significant?
How do those actions relate to Mike Francis, who became a Christian there in 1981 and returned without memory of it in 2019? Our eyes perceive only a demolished building and a man whose severe brain damage has left him cognitively disabled—dementia, as a neurologist recently named it in Mike, a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Memory loss is an example.
How are we to walk by faith in the face of dementia? (If appropriate for your situation, substitute disability or mental illness for dementia.) What does it mean for us—Mike’s family and friends and church—to do life with Mike in obedience to God’s word? To use the terminology of Tolman’s theory of purposive behaviorism, how do we not just respond to stimuli (the deficits we see), but act on our beliefs and attitudes (based on the Bible)? Today, when an aging population means the rise of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, how should Christians respond?
A quest for answers led me to Scotland, to John Swinton, a mental health nurse who became an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, a professor of practical theology at the University of Aberdeen, in particular his thoughts on disability theology in the article, “Forgetting Whose We Are: Theological Reflections on Personhood, Faith, and Dementia” (Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, September 2008).
Swinton addresses the role of faith in relating to people like Mike: “In order for us to hold on to the personhood and the full humanity of someone who appears to have been stripped of both, we need to be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (p. 58). It is an act of faith to value Mike as God does, to believe that God loves him as much as those more able-bodied, to believe that he bears God’s image as much as someone without a disability, and to believe that all God’s promises are as much for Mike as for any other Christian, even that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
“It is only as in faith, we come close to the person whose life is being affected by dementia that we can begin to see that there may be ‘something more’ than we first thought. In coming close and reflecting on that experience … we receive the gift of a deep revelation of a God who relates and remembers and who creates human beings with the primary purpose of relating and remembering.” (p. 60)
Mike used to quote a brilliant professor, Bruce Waltke, who said that the opposite of remembering was not forgetting, but dismembering. In relationship, we truly re-member a person with dementia. Relating and remembering are the heart of the regular helpers’ activities with Mike. Week by week, not only are these friends reminding Mike of his value and shared memories, they are also rebuilding his memory–his capacity to store and retrieve memories. It is the opposite of the bleak pictures of demolition at the top of this post, and the reason that we call them “miracle workers.” It is all by the grace of God who empowers this work, and I am so grateful for each one of these helpers, for other friends who continue to engage, and for all who continue to pray for us.
Lord, give us eyes of faith to see your image in people with dementia and to remember, love, and befriend them. Give us joy as we walk by faith, and may we be faithful in prayer and service, understanding that caring for “the least of these” is caring for you.