By A Watchful Observer*
In 2016, TVNZ 2 released a three-part documentary series which showcased life in New Zealand’s largest isolated Christian community – Gloriavale – for the first time. The show enthralled viewers who had previously only been able to hear whispers about what the fundamentalist Christian community was truly like. Gloriavale: A World Apart and the following sequels introduced the public to real-life members of Gloriavale, who live their lives completely isolated from the rest of New Zealand society and are completely devoted to Christ.
In 2017, some plucky first-year university students took it upon themselves to visit the community to see if life in Gloriavale really is as it appears on the screen. They may have also been motivated by the idea of joining a community where members don’t have access to personal finances in a desperate bid to wipe their student loan. One of these students, N*, explained that shortly after moving into the halls of residence in the South Island, she and some of her newfound fresher friends got talking about Gloriavale – as we all do after a couple of drinks.
“Some of us got talking about whether we’d stumbled across the TV show and what we all thought about it,” N said. “It was after realising that two of our friends had no idea what we were talking about that we thought, what better way to introduce them to Gloriavale than by going for a visit?”
However, the process for visiting Gloriavale is not something that a group of teenagers can undergo while still on the piss; getting the all-clear to visit Gloriavale’s 20 km2 rural settlement is a rigorous process.
“It wasn’t really something you could just sign up for on a whim,” N explained. “We had to request a visit, over email, months in advance and explain what our motivations were for going. When we were offered tickets to see their biennial concert, accepting them was conditional on some strict privacy conditions – mainly that we wouldn’t talk to the media,” N informed me with a dry laugh, “Please publish me under a pseudonym, I don’t want them to kill me.”
So, the gaggle of youth hid away their fresher’s town outfits, donned their most holy of attire and headed to Greymouth – and Gloriavale didn’t disappoint.“The people at Gloriavale put on a concert and a full three-course meal,” N shared.
When asked if the group of broke students had only gone to Gloriavale for a free feed, N declined to comment.
She added, “The concert far surpassed my expectations – with amazing costumes, talent and special effects.”
“After the concert, our group was invited on a tour. I would like to think this was down to luck, but I’m inclined to believe it was because of our promising, fertile demographic.”
Turns out you can use hot, young females to get free entries into seedy bars – and exclusive Christian communities.
“We toured the different businesses and facilities and were exposed to what day-to-day life would look like for men, women, and children,” N explained.
“While the prospect of altering between cooking and laundry for the rest of my life wasn’t super appealing, there was something attractive about the lifestyle – escaping the stresses of modern life to settle down at the base of the picturesque Southern Alps.”
“The fact that I could see the appeal in joining was probably what surprised me the most.”
Turns out you can use hot, young females to get free entries into seedy bars - and exclusive Christina communities.
N explained that their tour of Gloriavale was definitely intended to paint the community in “the best light for a prospective member” and said that they found the presentation of Gloriavale they were given through the tour to be pretty consistent with the way Gloriavale is portrayed on TV, but not necessarily in line with the realities.
“I wouldn’t say from visiting Gloriavale that I actually have any idea of what living in the community is like,” N said. “My exposure was quite limited and all under the eyes and instruction of a senior member of the community.”
“I don’t think any outsider can really know what happens behind closed doors.”Gloriavale has faced numerous allegations of child abuse and sexual abuse since the community was founded in 1969. In 1995, group founder – Neville Cooper (“Hopeful Christian”) was jailed for almost a year on sexual abuse charges. He was convicted based on the testimonies of his son and another woman who had left the community.
Midway through last year, the New Zealand Police – supported by Oranga Tamariki staff – launched an investigation into child abuse at Gloriavale and were at the community interviewing members. Police have also conducted a child abuse prevention programme for all Gloriavale community members since the inquiry began.
N stated that while her experience of visiting Gloriavale was limited, there are concerns raised by the existence of a community that is far removed from the rest of New Zealand culture and society.“
It is clear that the community wanted to be left in peace to enjoy their way of life undisturbed,” N said.
“While I respect this, I do think it is open for anyone to wonder whether isolated communities, with little transparency and limited room for law enforcement, can exist without some serious concerns.”
Gloriavale has faced numerous allegations of child abuse and sexual abuse since the community was founded in 1969.
While the TVNZ 2 documentaries can provide insight into a different way of life, it is crucial to remember that communities living in complete isolation, such as Gloriavale, and those in which power is held by a very select group of the community – may be vulnerable to corruption.
This doesn’t diminish the fact that the people that N interacted with were all kind, compassionate and considerate people who strive daily to uphold Christian values. There may be a place for communities like Gloriavale to exist and be further assisted by New Zealand’s law enforcement and child protective services to assure misdemeanours don’t happen.
What’s been learnt from this article though, is that they’ll give out a free feed. Still unclear whether they take on your student loan.