November 17, 2016: Dr. Wil Alexander, one of the best-known and widely beloved Adventist theologians, died yesterday at the age of 95. It is “the loss of a friend, the fall of a leader and the end of an era,” said his colleague in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University (LLU), Dr. David Larson.
Alexander made whole person care into the model it is today at the denomination’s leading health sciences university. He originally joined the faculty there in 1954. In 1963 he moved to the seminary faculty at Andrews University, later served as pastor of White Memorial Church in Los Angeles and in 1973 returned to LLU. He taught in the School of Medicine and in the School of Religion, as well as founding the Center for Spiritual Life and Wholeness.
“Our friend Wil Alexander is now gone,” says Richard Hart, MD, DrPH, president of Loma Linda University Health.
“His impact on this campus has been immeasurable,” said Dr. Richard Hart, president of LLU. “It will continue for generations in the lives of those students, residents, faculty and patients he impacted. He was absolute in his commitment to Loma Linda and in his desire that this campus become a model of whole person care, as he so ably defined it. Now it is upon all of us to carry on the incredible tradition he nurtured for so many years.”
Alexander served as the first dean of the School of Religion after LLU separated from what is now La Sierra University in 1990. While maintaining a strong relationship with the clinical faculty of the university, he successfully preserved a unified religion faculty, and played a key role in adding MA degree programs in Biomedical Ethics and Clinical Ministry.
As part of the effort to integrate the institutional motto, “To make man whole,” into working practice for students, faculty, staff and administrators, LLU created a taskforce on spiritual life and wholeness in 1991. As the premise developed, the university appointed Alexander as special assistant to the president for spiritual life and wholeness in 1993. Wholeness has become an essential goal in the education of all health care professionals at LLU, encouraging each graduate to integrate personal faith and witness into his or her practice of the healing arts.
In 1996, he founded and became director of the university’s Center for Spiritual Life and Wholeness, a base from which to foster and nurture spiritual life and wholeness in students, health care professionals, their families and their patients. For Alexander, whole person care was all about listening to patients’ stories.
“One of our greatest storytellers has said goodbye for now. Our lives have all been blessed by his presence among us. This organization will move forward greatly influenced by the path he has paved,” said Dr. Carla Gober-Park, current director of the center and his close friend.
Alexander described his vision for patient care this way: “I’ve spent a great deal of time in clinical situations where the patient becomes the best teacher. In more recent years, I’ve worked on a series of questions and ways in which to interview patients to help them tell their story. I see most patients as wounded storytellers who, out of pain, fear, emotions and relational things that are happening to them, find themselves actually feeling better having told the story. This helps the physician understand how this all inner-weaves together toward caring for them as whole persons.”
Dr. Roger Hadley, dean of the School of Medicine, stated that “Wil Alexander was extraordinarily successful in teaching generations of physicians a practical and highly effective way to incorporate spiritual care in the practice of medicine. His influence will be felt for many years.”
Alexander was the author of numerous articles and three books. His distinguished career earned him many awards, including Loma Linda University School of Medicine’s Senior Educator of the Year Award, La Sierra University Alumnus of the Year and the Distinguished Service Award from both Loma Linda University and its affiliated hospitals.
Last year, the documentary movie, “A Certain Kind of Light” followed Alexander on patient rounds sharing whole person care and recounted his legacy. It was first screened at LLU earlier this year and has also been shown in a number of national and international film festivals, winning multiple awards. These include the Global Health Film Festival in London, Roma Cinema DOC in Italy, Olive Tree Storyteller Fest in New York City and Christian Life Film Festival in Canada.
“Through ‘A Certain Kind of Light,’ we are exposed to a heart that transforms how we see those with whom we have healing encounters,” said Dr. Garrett Caldwell, executive director of public affairs for LLU. Wil Alexander’s kindness emanated to all whom he met. For a glimpse into who he was and how he cared, view the film’s trailer or listen to his series of lectures.
Lectures available here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/wil-alexander-wholeness-series/id920533373?mt=10
The featured photo with this story is a shot of Dr. Wil Alexander in front of a stained glass window in a chapel on the campus of Loma Linda University near San Bernardino, California.