Since 1969, Gloriavale Christian Community has set itself apart from New Zealand society. Over the past six years, nearly 100 people have left or been expelled from the 550-strong group on the South Island’s West Coast. Gloriavale leavers know only the communal lifestyle, religious rules and conformity demanded by their former leaders. For them, Timaru might as well be a foreign country.
It’s 8pm on a drizzly evening and dark.
Fog is setting in from Lake Brunner, spilling over the paddocks and empty roads of Moana, a sleepy holiday town on the West Coast. Most people here are dairy farmers, and most are winding down for the day, but Marcus Tuck is heading out the door of his Rotomanu home. He’s just had a call from someone in Gloriavale.
“I have to meet this young couple,” he says, and sighs. “The guy’s that close to being kicked out. They’re in trouble. They have a baby.”
He’s heading to an empty house on Bell Hill Farm, seven kilometres up the road—a property owned by Gloriavale, but located 18 kilometres away from the main community. He zips up his black fleece jacket and holds up two paperbacks he’s taking along—illicit reading material. Christian marriage advice.
When Marcus and his wife, Kathryn, moved to Moana from the North Island three years ago, Gloriavale was just a joke to them. Now, they’re de facto counsellors, their Christian faith forming a point of connection. Marcus grew up in Papua New Guinea, the son of a missionary, and now he’s an elder in a local church. People get in touch with them when they need to talk—when they have questions they cannot get answers to.
Contacting Marcus and Kathryn is not allowed—for Gloriavale members, calling someone on a phone is not permitted, and neither is speaking to people outside the community who have been blacklisted, as the Tucks are. Despite this, Marcus and Kathryn have become known, clandestinely, as people who can be trusted. And who listen.
Their new calling has taken them by surprise, but they’ve come to terms with it.
“People cannot drive out of Gloriavale without going past us,” says Marcus. “We have been put here. God’s got a purpose.”
Thirty kilometres into the Haupiri Valley, on the shore of a lake, nestled between rivers and hills, is Gloriavale: communal kitchen and dining hall, hostel buildings, sports fields, farmhouses, workshops, hangars and sprawling lawns. About 550 people live here in dormitories, one family to a room. Many people are second-generation adults who were born into the community. They sleep, pray, sing and eat together, and they work hard—on the farm, in the laundry, honey factory or childcare centre. Children attend school until the age of 15, and then they join the workforce. Some complete training by long-distance learning. Before the age of 18, teenagers sign a Declaration of Commitment, relinquishing all income and possessions and surrendering their personal rights to the community leaders, who choose their spouse.
Gloriavale members attempt to live according to the description of the early church in the New Testament: no private property, no borrowing or lending money, men in charge.
But there are a couple of non-biblical additions. Women promise to be meek, quiet and never use birth control. Everyone wears uniforms—nothing is permitted that allows an individual to stand out. Phones are not allowed, and internet access is restricted to a trusted few. The outside world is believed to be evil. The community is run by a group of 16 men, who hold the dual titles of ‘Servants and Shepherds’.
Gloriavale lost its founder in May 2018 when 92-year-old Hopeful Christian died—he formed the community in 1969 and later changed his name from Neville Cooper. Over the past six years, Gloriavale has also lost 93 members—people who have either left voluntarily or been expelled. Some later returned.
One of those people living between the inside and outside is John Ready.
In April 2017, a ute pulled into the Tucks’ driveway. A man in his late 30s got out, tears rolling down his cheeks. Marcus and Kathryn hadn’t met him before, but he knew who they were. He’d asked around other farms to find theirs.
John Ready was born into the Gloriavale community, and it was the only life he’d ever known. But his oldest daughter, Unity Ready, had just been expelled from it. She was 17. He’d just driven her to Timaru to stay with an aunt. He was distraught, and he needed someone to listen—not judge or punish him—before he returned home. His wife and eight other children remained inside.
It wasn’t the last the Tucks would see of John. Several months later, he was stripped of his job—managing Gloriavale’s largest dairy farm—after a magazine was found in
“Not Playboy or something,” says Marcus. “A Christian magazine.”
As punishment, John was segregated from the community, made to live alone in a house on the fringes of the property for several months.
“He was so lonely,” says Kathryn. “The leaders tried to break him by isolating him.”
He’d been asking too many questions—about the amount of authority the leaders held, why they controlled everything he read or thought. He didn’t relent, and finally, he was excommunicated. He moved in with the Tucks, and started working on their farm. “Otherwise he probably would have slashed tyres,” says Marcus. “There was so much anger.”
John didn’t break, and nor did he slash tyres. Soon after he was left stranded on the outside, an anonymous text message instructed him to pick up a used car at a Greymouth car dealer—a gift from a stranger.
Today, John lives by himself, a few houses down from the Tucks. He’s a dark-haired, handsome man with a boyish grin. Everyone I speak to about him is full of praise, telling me he’s an excellent farmer and father.
He speaks often to Unity—he calls her ‘T’.
“She had a pretty tough road,” he says. She had been questioning the doctrine, and she, too, had been isolated within the community for months at a time, starting from the age of 15. She had to sit by herself during meals and wasn’t allowed to speak to her friends.
“She lost her hair from all the emotional stress,” says John. “It made me look at the way they treat people.”
Now, John’s mission is getting the rest of his family out of Gloriavale. When he first left, Kathryn visited the community to speak to his wife, Purity Ready, but Purity condemned her husband, telling Kathryn that John was going to hell. John sneaked onto the grounds at night and painted a love message, encircled by a heart, outside his wife’s window on the lawn, using spray dye mixed with nitrogen. Purity saw it when she opened the curtain in the morning. It was washed off, but the message grew back, two weeks later, because of the nitrogen.
John is still a devout Christian, attending a Bible study group that Marcus holds at home. On his kitchen counter, there’s a bronze sculpture of the Last Supper.
The kitchen represents something John has had to learn since leaving Gloriavale. He’d never been shopping before, let alone prepared a meal. He’d stand in front of the shelves at the supermarket, gazing at all the options, wondering what the difference was between various brands.
“I often just asked elderly ladies,” he says. “They helped me out. The worst is coming home so hungry from work and no dinner ready yet.”
But the biggest change has been self-responsibility. Finding his own boundaries.
“In Gloriavale there are lots of rules. And now, as long as I’m not breaking the law, I can do whatever I want. But should I do that?”
For John, it’s a big enough deal just to have his own vehicle and to be able to visit Unity whenever he wants. He’s never been to the pub—it’s not his scene.
“Everything in moderation,” he says. “I’m not a teenager, I’m not exploring. My biggest enjoyment is to work.”
His focus is entirely on his family inside, not on the freedom around him. In a way, he hasn’t completely left yet. He grins. “If I’ve developed a new hobby at all, it was breaking into Gloriavale.”
He used to sneak into Gloriavale several times a week to see his family. But then his confidence grew, he got a lawyer, and accessed his rights to see his children. Now he visits by day, and Purity drives the kids out to see him—their youngest is two years old.
His phone pings with a message.
“That’s her,” he says. “She knows how to get on the Wi-Fi in there.”
Not only are cell phones prohibited at Gloriavale, but cell coverage is minimal. John says if he sees community members lingering in unusual places, he knows they’re trying to send an illicit message.
I want to know what’s preventing Purity from leaving.
“That is the million-dollar question,” he says. “She is true to what she has been reared in. I cannot blame her. But the system is not right. I don’t want my children to grow up in there.” A realtive of his was sexually abused a few years ago. “The men were told in a meeting by Nev [Hopeful Christian] that she had seduced this old guy. They made her forgive him.” His face is tense, his eyes suddenly wet, and he addresses an invisible group of men. “She was nine years old, you freaks.”
“I actually really struggled with not wearing a head covering,” says 21-year-old Theophila Faithful of her first weeks outside Gloriavale. “The condemnation—that I’m going to hell for that.”
Thoughtful and articulate, with long blonde hair and a round face that radiates kindness, Theo wears red lipstick and a matching dress. She was kicked out of Gloriavale under similar circumstances to Unity Ready’s—abruptly and on her own. More than two years later, she struggles to name the date of her exit.
“It was on leap year day, in—what’s the second month, sorry?”
That’s February. Where she grew up, the months and days of the week have only numbers, not names. She never knew her siblings’ birthdays—no one gets to stand out and be celebrated. ”No one should be made special.”
Her childhood at Gloriavale was unhappy. Her father beat her mother, and she says she was sexually abused by a young man in the community, but wasn’t able to speak up.
“He was good, I was not,” she says. “Girls and women get blamed for everything. My mum was told it was her fault how badly my dad treated her.”
She avoided spending time with her family, even sleeping outside in the bush at times. She wasn’t allowed to have a best friend.
“It’s a form of control—the group comes first,” she says. “Everyone has to love everyone the same.”
At 15, she began to work. By 16, she was making cheese from 5am until 7pm from Monday to Saturday, as well as working in the kitchen on Sundays. The pressure to conform grew, as did her discomfort. For most of her teenage years, she was depressed, but she didn’t realise it.
“Mental health problems are seen as a lack of faith.”
When she was 18, she refused to sign the Declaration of Commitment, and she was forced to leave immediately—there was no chance to say goodbye. She was given an airline ticket and dropped at a bus stop in Greymouth.
“Some of my siblings wrote hate letters to me,” she says. “I was pretty much in shock on the three-hour ride to Christchurch. Never been inside an airport or on a plane.”
Theo was sent to Auckland, where she arrived, lost and confused, on the doorstep of a distant friend of her mum’s—a woman Theo had met once before, briefly, at 14. The friend thought Theo was only coming for a visit.
“When they tried to get rid of me,” says Theo, “she was the only person we knew.”
Theo ended up staying with the woman for a year. She had no money, and when she visited Work and Income to obtain welfare, the staff member she dealt with was less than understanding. “The person serving me didn’t know anything about Gloriavale. She asked, ‘Where are your parents? Have you got shoes?’ I didn’t have any. They looked at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Not working every day made her feel lazy, so she got a job as a nanny, and enrolled to study for a certificate in early childhood education. Now she’s studying to become an occupational therapist.
Music, parties, sports were frightening at first. She had no reference points with people her own age, because she hadn’t read the same books or ever watched television. So she just went quiet.
“Just to have a conversation with someone I didn’t know was hard. What to ask?” she says. Not to mention the sudden freedom around whom she could speak to. “Girls are not allowed to talk privately to guys in Gloriavale. Not even our cousins.”
At an Auckland church, Hope Centre, she made new friends, and forged new ground with her Christian faith. She still believes in God, but in an emancipated way. “I can have a relationship with him myself,” she says. “I don’t need leaders for that.”
Today, she shares a tidy single-storey house in Mt Wellington with a flatmate and a cat. When I meet her, she’s just returned from a Rotary leadership camp, and she’s about to change her last name to Pratt, after her grandparents. She’s still passionate about making cheese—a skill she values.
Her best friend is Unity Ready, who works at a law firm in Timaru. The next time they see each other, they’ll go to a pop concert. Last time, they got their ears pierced. They’ve made plans to get another tattoo together. Theo already has two. She takes her boot off, rolls down her sock and reveals the art above her ankle—a landscape that she misses. The Southern Alps. She smiles at me. “I’ve come over so many mountains. And I’m going to go over heaps more.”
In August 2017, she returned to Gloriavale, smuggled in by Marcus and Kathryn Tuck, who were collecting a beehive. Theo walked around with an assertive smile, she says, while her family “freaked out”. Her sister pulled away from a hug and covered her baby’s eyes. When Fervent Stedfast, one of the community leaders, approached to chase her away, Theo threatened to call the police. “They were scared of me,” she says.
We go to Theo’s room. She opens her laptop to show me the opening paragraph of the book she has started to write (“I didn’t choose the cult life,” it starts, “it chose me”) and takes a folded photocopy of a family photo from a drawer. Twenty people in blue. “I went through my mother’s bag and found it, so I kept it. She raised me the best she could. They are all victims of the system there.”
One older woman who has been helping Gloriavale leavers adjust to a new life outside for 20 years (see sidebar on page 72) tells me most young women from the community have nothing to say, and don’t look you in the eye. They have been raised to be fearful, meek and submissive, never believing they’d have to make life decisions for themselves. They have no preferences, no interests. They don’t even know what their favourite colour is. But Theo is an exception.
“I always knew it was green.”
In true Gloriavale style, I leave with baking: Theo has made muffins for me. They taste delicious the next morning when I drive across the Waikato to meet Aaron Courage, a 20-year-old Gloriavale leaver who now lives and works on a 200-hectare dairy farm in Otorohanga.
Aaron drives me around the paddock and past the milking shed on a side-by-side off-road vehicle, mud splashing up our boots. Inside his cottage, he shows me his favourite Jersey cow catalogues from 1965, three boxes full. There’s an award pinned to the cupboard: Waikato Dairy Trainee of the Year.
“I won a few merit awards,” he says, pleased. “Spent it all on cows.”
He has eight cows. His dream is to start a herd.
“Without growing up in Gloriavale, I wouldn’t be able to achieve such big things at such a young age,” he says.
His upbringing taught him perseverance —“a strong work ethic”, he says. It’s the only thing he’ll tell me about his former home that’s positive.
Aaron says he was beaten regularly by his father from the age of 12. “I was a troublemaker, rebellious and pig-headed.”
Almost every other week, he was hauled before Gloriavale authorities—the Servants and Shepherds meetings—for transgressions such as walking around with his cuffs undone. His schoolmates had a go at him, too, until he was kicked out of school. “I just learned to shut it out,” he says.
When he asked someone he trusted for a cell phone, he was reported. He was locked in a room overnight with the windows shut, then sent to live on his own at Bell Hill Farm. He worked at Bell Hill, but wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone except his manager. He was given groceries, but had no idea how to prepare them. He lived alone in an empty house—nothing to read, nothing to do. One night, about 20 men from Gloriavale came over and told him he’d be living like this for the rest of his life. “It was a form of mental torture,” he says. “I guess that later had consequences.”
At 14, he was kicked out, and went to stay with relatives in Australia, trying to adjust to life at a public school with 1500 students: “No one understood where I had come from.”
At 16, he moved back to New Zealand, to Timaru, where he began drinking and smoking heavily—one pack a day, 60
drinks a week—until he found God, again, becoming a devoted modern Christian: “It saved me.”
He and another young leaver also started sneaking onto Gloriavale at night in order to leave contraband for members to find—Christian books and magazines that showed a different approach to God, or prepaid cell phones loaded with contacts.
Before I leave, Aaron proudly shows me an artwork of a cow’s head pinned to the wall—his fiancée drew it for him. They met six months ago, through church. “I asked to marry her last week,” he says.
Their wedding will take place in January, but Aaron has yet to tell his parents. He knows they won’t be coming.
Cows are wandering along the fence when I walk onto another farm, north of Timaru. It took a while to get hold of James Harrison, formerly known as James Ben Canaan.
Timaru is home to 48 former members of Gloriavale, as well as a Baptist church which organises practical, financial and psychological support for leavers. I’m standing outside the house where they meet every week for Bible study. An overturned baby buggy lies on the grass next to a tricycle. I’m still counting the pairs of shoes at the door when James pulls up in his truck. It’s the end of a long day—this is the middle of calving season.
“About 15 today,” he says, not smiling much. A van pulls up, and his wife, Hope Harrison, gets out, bringing some of their 14 children back from school.
When Unity Ready, her niece, arrived in Timaru, Hope helped her to enter modern society—organising an EFTPOS card, birth certificate, tax number, driver’s licence.
These formalities were once challenges for Hope, too. Three years ago, she didn’t know anything about renting a house or how the rubbish collection worked. She’d never been shopping, but suddenly, she had many mouths to feed—not to mention enrolling half a dozen children in schools, and getting them books and uniforms.
When families leave, Gloriavale mothers struggle to look after their children on their own. Within the community, food is cooked, clothes washed and toddlers minded by others. Their husbands are of little help at first, because men don’t learn domestic chores in Gloriavale, or care for children—they don’t know how to change a nappy or wipe a nose.
Sometimes, the desire to spend more time with children is a motivation for parents to leave—they don’t want the collective looking after their kids. There, mothers usually return to work a few weeks after the birth of a child. But it’s a tug of war. All the ex-Gloriavale mothers Hope has spoken to have entertained the idea of going back again. Some do, temporarily.
“You have your bad days, when you cry your eyes out and everything seems terrible,” she says.
“There are so many things you don’t have to worry about at Gloriavale,” adds James. His tone is part admiration, part sarcasm: “You don’t have to think. You just have to obey the rules.”
A man and a woman drop by for a visit—James’s sister and her husband. They left Gloriavale last week with their nine children. The woman wears a mismatched fleece top and sarong, both from op-shops. They look out of place, with discomfort and exhaustion written over their faces. It’s culture shock. They’ve looked at three houses today, trying to find somewhere to live.
“How are you doing emotionally?” I ask.
“That’s not a good question,” the woman says, turning away from me.
When they leave, Hope explains they were scared of speaking to a journalist.
“When you first come out, you have the mindset that the media’s just evil,” she says.
She sets out bowls with chicken thighs and corn cobs on the long dining table, trying to keep the children quiet. “We know exactly what these guys are going through. It brings back all the memories, the raw emotions.”
Hope has been trying to teach some of the younger leavers social behaviour, such as saying hello or goodbye, something people at Gloriavale don’t do. There are new customs to learn, like offering someone who comes to their house a coffee, or what to bring to a kids’ birthday party.
The Harrisons left Gloriavale after James began to question its teachings. He managed Bell Hill Farm—where Aaron Courage was secluded—for 20 years. Because it was located away from Gloriavale, James was allowed to have a phone. He got talking to some men who had left and returned. He realised the stories he had been told about other leavers weren’t true—that they weren’t sinners for seeking freedom—and began to wonder what else might be false. Was Hopeful Christian, Gloriavale’s founder and leader, lying about why he had served time in prison?
Hopeful had been convicted of indecent assault of a minor in 1995, and spent 11 months behind bars, but told his followers that he had been imprisoned for his faith. James learned the truth from another Gloriavale leaver.
When the Harrisons sneaked out of Gloriavale in the early hours of the morning, they put letters under everyone’s dorm-room doors, exposing Hopeful Christian’s hypocrisy. Outside, they met their getaway driver—a man in his 40s at the wheel of a hired van, who took them over the mountains to Timaru.
Renè Kempf is an elder at a Timaru church that regularly donates boxes of food and container-loads of household items to Gloriavale leavers. He owns a bluestone business with his wife, Bronwyn, and the couple have been supporting Gloriavale families for the past five years.
“They’ve enriched our lives,” says Renè. “They’re like family.”
They describe Gloriavale as “like North Korea in New Zealand” and want the government to hold the community’s leadership to account, especially in terms of its financial exploitation of its members.
“When the young fella left that we first met, he got $50,” says Renè. “At least the guys that got kicked out recently got $5000. But that’s still not enough for a lifetime of labour.”
He clearly remembers his first meeting with a family who came out.
“I said to my wife, ‘You need to go and speak to that young lady cause she’s the saddest person I’ve ever seen’.”
Bronwyn nods. “She was not good.” Now, they’re friends.
As well as arranging food, shelter and clothes, the Kempfs are willing to drop everything to pick up Gloriavale leavers. Once, Bronwyn heard a woman and her children wanted to leave immediately after a concert, in broad daylight. As a precaution, she contacted police in Greymouth, letting them know what was taking place, then she drove straight into Gloriavale and pulled up outside the dormitory the family lived in. Then she waited. “I have never sweated so much in my life,” she says. “But I would have done anything the moment she said, ‘Will you take me?’”
Sometimes, families leap into a hired van in the middle of the night. For others, leaving is prolonged and painful. Five years ago, Elijah and Rosanna Overcomer arrived in Timaru with almost nothing—the first of many Gloriavale refugee families to shelter there.
Now, they live on a farm near Fairlie, a tiny country town northwest of Timaru. Rosanna’s youngest baby is asleep when she lets me into her spacious open-plan kitchen, wearing a clingy dark-blue dress, earrings and a diamond ring Elijah bought her for their seventh wedding anniversary.
“Elina was born in here, with the fire going, just a few weeks ago,” she says, pointing at the lambskin in front of the wood burner. The walls are decorated with family photos, verses from the Psalms and word-art affirmations such as ‘aroha’ and ‘whānau’. A drum kit sits in the corner. Rosanna plays the cello, Elijah the trumpet.
Elina is wearing a woollen hat with pompoms that Rosanna knitted while in Gloriavale. She makes some of her children’s clothing—she might start her own company someday.
While her preschool kids listen to a Curious George audiobook, the 32-year-old sits by the main window, looking out onto the snow-covered peak of Mt Dobson, and recalls her story.
The Overcomers had been thinking of leaving for two years. Rosanna had three children, and was afraid of her girls suffering sexual abuse.
“There’s no help or protection—I know that first-hand—and it’s always the girl’s fault.”
Meanwhile, Elijah had a list of questions he wanted to put to the leadership—he was suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Hopeful Christian’s prison term. He went to meet the leaders, but never returned. He’d been expelled, but Rosanna was told that he had left Gloriavale, abandoning her.
“I was just in constant confusion, not knowing what to believe.” She wipes her tears away. “It was absolutely traumatic, all of it.”
Elijah fought from the outside to see her. He and Rosanna were permitted to meet, but their conversation was disrupted by Gloriavale men harassing them. Before their next meeting, a leader told Rosanna that Child, Youth and Family (CYF) officers were on their way to Gloriavale to take her children away. She hid in a closet in the sewing room. When she finally emerged, she saw a furious Elijah outside, before she was bundled into a car with her children and her mother, driven to an aircraft hangar, and loaded into a seven-seater plane. Someone told her they would fly until CYF had gone. Instead, they were flown to Karamea, put up in a motel and instructed not to leave. Then they were flown to Motueka, where they spent weeks living in a series of bed-and-breakfasts, while Elijah searched for them. Finally, the leaders relented, and the whole family, including Elijah, were allowed to return to Gloriavale. They would go to hell if they left, said the leaders. They departed two months later.
“They don’t stop you physically from going, but they spiritually harass you,” says Rosanna.
Because they didn’t know where they were going to live with their small kids, the Overcomers took a tent. Their car broke down on the way to Christchurch, just after Porters Pass, and Elijah walked up to Castle Hill Station to call for help. The owners loaned them a car, which they packed full of food. It was a turning point for Rosanna, who’d been taught the outside world was nothing but evil. She remembers thinking: “Is this the devil trying to make us feel good, or are these people actually caring?”
The next day, Elijah was given a job, a van and $1000—all by people he hadn’t met before. “More than we were given from Gloriavale when we left,” says Rosanna. “I saw that people weren’t doing it for any gain, just because they care. I wasn’t used to that. I only knew conditional love.”
She’d been taught that the only true Christians were inside Gloriavale. “So arrogant,” she says. “Seeing people doing good work out here gave me a shift in thinking that God is not just in Gloriavale.”
Still, it took a long time for some of her former beliefs to dissipate. When Rosanna and Elijah started work on a farm, she suffered two shocks from her long skirt being caught in an electric fence. Switching to pants was another turning point for her. She started wearing them, and nothing bad happened.
“Those pants didn’t change me—they didn’t take my love away from God or my husband,” she says. “The first year after we left, I grew from a five-year-old girl into a 20-year-old person. Being able to think and make good decisions instead of protecting myself from being judged all the time.”
There have been a lot of things to adjust to. She felt that sending her kids to the local school was “wicked”, because she didn’t want to take the chance of them being brainwashed by somebody else.
“I didn’t want to ever expose them to the influence of others again,” she says.
But when four teenagers from Gloriavale turned up on her doorstep recently, asking for help, Rosanna was overwhelmed—she was already looking after five kids and a two-week-old baby. She gave in and enrolled her preschooler in kindergarten. “I was blessed by the support.” Another learning step.
There is a new pressure to conform that she is feeling now—how to fit in, from fashion to kids’ sports and holidays, and even turning up for church events.
“Gloriavale is a cult, but the world can do the same thing to you. There are still pressures to conform, to do this or that, or be somebody. Coming out helped us to notice that—do what is right for us and carve our own path.”
Rosanna and Elijah are determined not to turn into followers again, even if it’s just trends. “We are living our life with as much intention as we can, by our own principles, and what works best for our family.”
She gets up to take a lasagne out of the oven—it’s lunchtime. Elijah joins us, along with his parents, who left Gloriavale two years ago.
Elijah, a tall and dark-haired 29-year-old, is not a man of many words, but he’s confident. The battles he has been through have given him strength and independence.
I ask him if he ever joined in the night raids on Gloriavale, but he didn’t. Sneaking in isn’t his style: “I’d rather go straight to the leaders.”
Three years ago, he was still thinking of returning, with the idea of changing Gloriavale from within. There, he had “the best childhood you could ever have”: making huts in the bush, finding nests, going eeling and fishing. “School would finish at one o’clock and dad would take us possum trapping,” he says. “They were pioneers, that generation.”
Today, he works as a contract milker, but his goal is to own a farm. “And always have my children around me.”
Every second winter, Gloriavale puts on a show—a Disney-style spectacle with singing, dancing, and a free dinner. More than 5000 people attend, and shows are staged almost every night over five weeks. It’s a donation to the outside community, something that allows Gloriavale to keep its charity status. It’s also often a reason for people to leave Gloriavale—overworked from performing late into the night on top of long shifts.
I attend the concert in July 2018—it’s an impressive four-hour extravaganza, with outstanding costumes, props and musical talent. As I’m leaving, carrying gifts of homemade bread and churned butter, I come across Prudent Stedfast, the son of Gloriavale secretary and treasurer Fervent Stedfast. He’s answering questions from visitors, so I ask how he feels about the Gloriavale members who have left.
“They’re bad apples,” he says. “If you allow a sinner in the church and don’t deal with it, it gets rotten.”
So what happens when someone leaves? “You are not to speak to them, talk with them, eat with them. You cut them off.”
Prudent, an engineer, is a father of eight—but if one of his children wanted to go, he tells me, he would have to shun them in the name of Christ.
“It’s all or nothing. My kids know that. If they want the world, they can’t have me.”
If people choose to leave, they’re well set up for the outside world, he says.
“It takes you longer to learn to make butter than to bank a cheque. The people who leave here are far better set up to do well. We teach them how to work hard, how to be disciplined and organised; that will carry them a lot further. They all do very well, financially. They all get what they need. We don’t leave them in the dark, we contact them and give them money and make sure they are set up in jobs and the rest of it.”
I know this isn’t true—some people don’t receive money, and no one I’ve spoken to was set up with a job. Prudent concludes by telling me Gloriavale is the perfect place for women because they don’t have to work—“Well, not men’s work,” he corrects himself, when one of the female visitors challenges him. Then he goes to an office to fetch me a King James Bible to take home: “It’s the only one to read.”
The network of people helping Gloriavale leavers extends from Auckland to Timaru to the most remote parts of the West Coast. Half an hour from Moana, on a farm set into the bush, I visit Judy and Tom Carson. Those aren’t their real names. Not even their neighbours know the volunteer work that the couple are involved in after hours.
“You have to keep a low profile,” says Judy. They’re not the only family in the area helping Gloriavale members, but she doesn’t know who the others are. “No one talks. It’s like the safe houses back in Nazi Germany for the Jews.”
The long dining table I’m sitting at has seen many Gloriavale visitors over the years.
The Carsons are farmers, and have had a professional relationship with Gloriavale for a decade, hiring members to work on their farm. People from Gloriavale are not allowed to enter the Carsons’ home, or use a phone, so sometimes visitors sit in their driveway to talk, or ask them to call someone on their behalf. That way, they can answer honestly if someone asks later if they’ve broken the rules.
“We offer friendship,” says Tom simply, though his demeanour is serious.
Sometimes, it’s a tricky friendship to maintain. If Judy is gardening in shorts and a t-shirt and someone from Gloriavale pops over, she feels exposed. When they have barbecues, she wears a long skirt. For a while, she wore a headband with it, until she realised that it symbolises submission: “I never wore it again.”
When she speaks to Gloriavale leaders, they don’t look her in the eye. Hopeful Christian wouldn’t talk to her directly, only to Tom.
“It’s like being in a different culture.”
Like the Tucks, the Carsons are witnesses to the spiritual and emotional dilemmas of people who are considering leaving.
“One fellow, he just walked out of the door in the middle of the conversation, up and down that road, for an hour and a half, like a pendulum clock,” says Judy. “Was he doing the right thing or the wrong thing?”
When the debate becomes theological, and Gloriavale members ask the Carsons for a Bible, it has to be the King James Version.
“It’s fairly hard to give advice to people who have been brought up being told that they are better than the rest of us,” says Judy.
“Huge arrogance,” says Tom. “They don’t think they need CVs, or a driver’s licence.”
When Tom sees young people sleeping in their cars—so that they can sneak into Gloriavale to see their families—he offers them food and a bed, and calls Gloriavale to ask for permission for them to enter.
“We don’t hide people,” says Tom. “We go to the leaders and say who’s here.”
They’ve often seen the parting moments of separated families.
“To watch mothers spend their final hours with their children that are out here…” Judy’s voice drops. “Like an execution is happening. An incredible sense of loss.”
Three months after beginning this story, I meet Marcus Tuck and John Ready again. They seem more on edge this time. There has recently been a suicide in Gloriavale—a young man, only 20 years old.
“Everyone’s nerves are raw,” says Marcus. He worries that more people might break. Many of the people I’ve met are worried about relatives who are still inside.
Meanwhile, three cases of underage sexual abuse or assault at Gloriavale are currently awaiting trial. One perpetrator is a man who left the community, and later turned himself in to authorities.
“He came to that conviction not because of the Gloriavale leaders,” says Marcus, “but because of what he learned after he left.”
I ask Marcus whether, knowing what he knows about what goes on inside Gloriavale, the forced closure of the community would be justified? He shakes his head.
“It would be an absolute disaster, because it’s the only home they know. We need people helping them—not the law. If you destroy Gloriavale, there are not enough counsellors in the South Island to deal with the mess.”
Marcus is patient. He knows Gloriavale leadership sees him as the enemy, but he bears its people no malice.
“We want Gloriavale healed. Our role is to strengthen the ones who are in there. The last thing we want is to break up more families.”
It’s getting dark again. The fog is thickening around Moana, and Marcus is on another mission. Tonight, he’s going to park at the one-lane bridge that leads into Gloriavale—as he often does. That’s where Gloriavale’s night watchmen normally are. He will sit there and read from the Bible, spreading a different gospel. One of the zealots might come and join him in a prayer. The first step on a long road.