The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 11, 2010

Pastors say teen's suicide struck chord

People from across Valley express shock, bewilderment

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

— MIDDLEBURG — Brandon Bitner's suicide has struck such a chord with folks that the Rev. Julia Beall is even fielding questions at the grocery store.

People don't hesitate "to catch up and share their thoughts and hurts, ask questions," said the pastor of First United Church of Christ, Middleburg. The teenager's funeral was Wednesday.

For instance, just on Tuesday "at the borough building, it was discussed with me, at the grocery store ... I can't seem to go anywhere where someone hasn't come up and expressed deep sorrow," she said.

The outpouring of shock and bewilderment is something that happens in these kinds of circumstances, Beall said.

"It's really hit everybody, from grandparents to school kids," she said. "Everybody just looks at how this could get to this place, and nobody knows enough about it to stop it."

"I think they're stunned," said the Rev. Denny Mallonee, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Beaver Springs, referring to people's reactions.

"I think the whole community is stunned by it," he said. "It's such a tragic way that it happened."

Brandon, a 14-year-old freshman at Midd-West High School, took his life Friday, saying in his suicide note that he had been bullied for five years and as recently as two days before he died.

While officials work to find out what, if anything, was going on at the school, Valley residents from Middleburg and beyond are coming to terms with the tragedy, often seeking guidance from religious leaders.

Mallonee said he's not been asked why this happened, "though I am sure that question is in their minds," he said.

Beall said tragedies like this tend to stir up a sense of widespread guilt among people.

"I have families with kids who are in really different spots sometimes, and we do anything we can to pull them out of it," she said. "That's why this is so sad. Unfortunately, there weren't adults who realized how much suffering Brandon was doing."

Karl Polm-Faudre, director of education, research and outreach in the spiritual care division of the Geisinger Health System, has a different take on community reaction.

"I think the tragedy stems not from (Brandon's) decision to take his own life," he said. "The tragedy stems from a community and an environment in which he could not thrive."

Polm-Faudre said in his regular clergy study group — which encompasses Episcopal, Lutheran and United Church of Christ — everyone was aware of bullying that's present in there areas, "and these are people from Mazeppa to Lewisburg, Sunbury, Benton, Berwick ..." he said.

"I think the message we would want to give is that the community needs to take stock of the anti-gay rhetoric that's been going on, especially from some political and religious circles," Polm-Faudre said. "Because this is giving permission for bullying, harassment and name calling."

People will come to terms with their pain, Beall said, but to stay there, things will need to change.

"We need to embody that kindness that doesn't tolerate this kind of hurt, in every small way we live," Beall said, adding the culture of the church is that "we do affirm that God created us for a purpose, and respect that God created every person for an purpose because that is part of the Christian culture. ... We are all loved by God, and we should love one another."

Mallonee said a stronger bond between kids and their parents also will help.

"If the kids can get the message that nothing beats that close family relationship and that close communication with mom and dad ... we get busy with so many things that pull that family apart instead of binding it together," he said.