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Brian Leavitt, minister of the Lobster Valley church and his wife, Chris, visit the southern Oregon coast.
Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Healing a wounded town

After a string of suicides, a minister helps bring answers to a small Oregon community.

ALSEA, Ore. — At the little white church off the two-lane blacktop, the front door stays unlocked all the time — just in case a passerby needs to use the restroom.

Through the windows of the Lobster Valley Church of Christ, a 40-member congregation started by pioneer loggers a century ago, minister Brian Leavitt can look out and spot deer, elk and an occasional bald eagle. Up the hill, sawmill and dairy workers rest in peace in a cemetery deeded to the church by a founding member.

“When I first moved here in the ’90s, we were still digging the graves by hand,” said Leavitt, 54, a retired U.S. deputy marshal. “It was kind of a time where you do a little decompressing and a little sharing.”

Leavitt, his wife, Chris, and their five children moved to this Oregon Coast Range community — 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean — about 15 years ago. They live on forestland dotted with colorful lilies and irises and frequented by black bears and cougars.

“It took us to our knees.”

“It’s a pretty remote area, but it’s gorgeous,” said Leavitt, whose backyard overlooks a creek that runs into the Alsea River and serves as a swimming hole for salmon and steelhead.

Amid the beauty of wildflowers and wildlife, the ugliness of violent death gripped the tight-knit people of Alsea in 2009: Three suicides in three months shook the community.

“It took us to our knees,” Leavitt said.

A two-lane blacktop highway runs between the Lobster Valley church and the cemetery across the street.

A two-lane blacktop highway runs between the Lobster Valley church and the cemetery across the street.

In the two years since, he and the Lobster Valley church have worked to bring healing — and answers — to the reeling town.

“It made us all aware of how fragile life can be,” the minister said. “We know it from reality, whether it’s logging accidents or cancer. … But there are sometimes when we really recognize the frailty of the human condition, and suicide is one of those.”

Taboo subject

Nationwide, nearly 35,000 people died by suicide in 2007, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For every person who died, a dozen more tried to kill themselves.

Brian Leavitt visits the church-owned cemetery.

Brian Leavitt visits the church-owned cemetery.

Here in Oregon, suicide was the leading cause of violent death in 2009, with the state health authority reporting a suicide rate of 16.8 per 100,000 people that year. Homicide was next with 2.6 per 100,000.

“I don’t think it’s talked about openly enough,” said Larry Brady, an elder of the Davenport Church of Christ in Alabama and author of “Undiagnosed: Losing the Son I Didn’t Know,” a book about the 2005 suicide of his 29-year-old son. “After Chris died, we found that there are a lot of people grappling with this same situation, same problem.”

Victims range from teenagers harassed at school to military veterans suffering war trauma to elderly people facing a debilitating illness or loss of a spouse.

However, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center cautions against oversimplifying the causes of suicide.

More than 90 percent of victims have a diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder, according to the center.

Yet suicide remains a taboo subject for many in society — and in the church, where some view it as an unforgivable sin.

“You cannot always predict or prevent every suicide.”

“I teach counselors and ministers to recognize warning signs of suicide risk, yet you cannot always predict or prevent every suicide,” said Ed Gray, professor of counseling at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn. “Our compassion and caring involvement are our best responses to individuals who are at risk for suicide.”

“Undoubtedly, some who take their own life do so from a mental state that makes them no longer responsible for their choices,” said Cecil May Jr., dean of the Bible college at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason God is the final judge of such things, and we are not, is that the heart is involved, not just actions that can be seen. Only God can consider that essential aspect of things.”

The Lobster Valley church was started by pioneer blogers.

The Lobster Valley church was started by pioneer bloggers.

How could he?

For 33 years, Gilbert N. Strom served as pastor of the Alsea Baptist Church, a tiny congregation that Leavitt said believes in baptism for the remission of sins.

A Vietnam veteran, Strom liked handing out American flags as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7961 in Alsea.

He taught hunter safety courses to generations of Alsea children — including Leavitt’s — and worked at the post office.

“This is the mercantile,” Leavitt said, pointing out the main store in town. “That bench is where Gilbert would sit forever and talk to folks. Gilbert was a person who was basically a friend to everybody in the valley.”

Strom died by suicide on Feb. 7, 2009. He was 62.

As the chaplain with Alsea’s volunteer fire department, Leavitt responded to the call when his friend’s body was found.

Leavitt, fire chief George Foster — also a member of the Lobster Valley church — and their wives cleaned up the shooting scene to save the family that anguish. More than 500 people packed the school gymnasium for Strom’s funeral, which Leavitt preached.

After Strom’s death, residents peppered Leavitt with questions: Why would a beloved community leader kill himself? How could a pastor, of all people, do this? Were warning signs missed?

“I have told literally hundreds of people that nothing in 30-plus years of law enforcement and almost 20 years of ministry provided me with those answers,” Leavitt said. “I sought to give answers to many people who came to me for counsel and advice, and yet I knew that my answers rang hollow.”

Lobster Valley church member George Foster serves as Alsea's volunteer fire chief.

Lobster Valley church member George Foster serves as Alsea’s volunteer fire chief.

The next month, even as the community mourned Strom’s death, a second resident killed himself.

A few weeks later, a third victim — a young man from out of town —was found on a hillside.

“It kind of turned things upside down,” said fire chief Foster, a rock quarry operator who also serves on the Alsea school board.

The volunteer fire department covers a 100-square-mile area with less than 1,000 total residents.

Everybody literally knows everybody.

“I honestly don’t think we’re any different than any other community,” Leavitt said. “I just think, because we know our neighbors, everybody knew what happened.”

Saving others

In the aftermath of the deaths, the Lobster Valley church paid for Leavitt and two Alsea schoolteachers to attend a course on suicide intervention.

That resulted in the high school offering a four-day suicide prevention program for students.

Leavitt also traveled to Seattle and attended a police and fire chaplain academy focused on prevention and intervention. He shared what he learned with all of Alsea’s 20-plus volunteer firefighters and other community leaders.

At an areawide preachers’ luncheon, Leavitt made the case for churches taking the lead in preventing unnecessary deaths.

“If Christians don’t have reasons for living, nobody has reasons for living,” he said.

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, warning signs range from a person threatening to hurt or kill oneself to hopelessness, uncontrolled anger and relentless risky activities.

“There are going to be some people that are going to slip under the radar, but most people don’t want to die,” Leavitt said. “Most people are looking for someone to engage. My question is, ‘Are you going to be listening — really, actively listening — to what somebody’s saying?’”

After Strom’s death, his family heard from a friend that he had contemplated suicide after his mother’s death in 2007, said his sister Margie Ferris of Vancouver, Wash.

“We wish she could have shared that with the family earlier,” Ferris said.

Brian Leavitt, minister of the Lobster Valley church and his wife, Chris, visit the southern Oregon coast.

Brian Leavitt, minister of the Lobster Valley church and his wife, Chris, visit the southern Oregon coast.

At home, Strom was quiet and withdrawn — not the outgoing, bubbly personality most people knew, his sister said. After his mother’s death, the Baptist pastor buried his father and a close friend and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Ferris and other relatives of Strom have visited the Lobster Valley church and expressed their gratitude for Leavitt and the congregation.

“We may save others because of what Brian has done.”

“We may save others because of what Brian has done,” Ferris said. “I think he’s made it a better community and a more caring community.”

Strom’s sister doesn’t blame herself for her brother’s death, but she can’t help asking, “What if?”

“I’m not positive his death could have been prevented,” she said. “But I wonder, if we had had the knowledge that Brian’s bringing now, could I have done something? I’ll always wonder.”

Already, the effort in Alsea is saving lives, community leaders said.

“The number of people watching out for each other is staggering,” Leavitt said. “It is my prayer that this effort is just beginning and that hundreds more — perhaps thousands — will benefit directly from our love for a dear friend.”

Information on suicide prevention

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or (800) 273-TALK.

• Suicide Prevention Resource Center: www.sprc.org

• Save One Life Suicide Intervention Training (Brian and Chris Leavitt): [email protected] or (541) 331-6445.

• LivingWorks: www.livingworks.net

• QPR Institute: www.qprinstitute.com

• Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: www.sptsnj.org

Filed under: National Oregon suicide Top Stories

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