Doco on NZ fundamentalist community

Spotlight goes on Gloriavale

JEREMY OLDS
Last updated 08:34 13/07/2014
gloriavale
CULT OR IDYLLIC SOCIETY? That's the question asked in Gloriavale: A World Apart, a documentary about the West Coast community, on TV2 this week.

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Paul Valor at age 19 told his father he was ready to marry.

The lucky lady was Pearl, aged 21, selected from a shortlist of potential brides prepared by the Gloriavale leaders. Pearl accepted the offer, despite having never been alone with Paul. "I didn't know very much about her before I asked her to marry me, actually," Paul said soon after proposing. "I mean, I've lived with her my whole life - she's always been here - but I'm at work; she's in the kitchen."

Their courtship was speedy. Just five weeks later, they walked down the aisle together, each clutching a bible. Pearl wore a pink dress and head-cover chosen by Paul, and sat through the ceremony looking painfully bored. There was singing, scripture reading, and vows read with shaky voices. As they embraced in a deep, awkward hug, a group of older men crowded around the couple, putting their hands on the newlyweds and praying.

After briefly celebrating with their families, the pair departed - in a small car driven by a small child dressed as a chauffeur - for a prepared room, where they promptly lost their virginities.

Paul and Pearl's wedding ceremony was devoid of rings, bridesmaids, bouquets and any semblance of romance, but that is the nature of Gloriavale weddings: this is love in its most calculated, biblical sense. For those present, the most remarkable thing about that day was the film crew. The newlyweds' nuptials were filmed for national television - an astounding feat, given the sect's notorious seclusion and total rejection of mainstream culture.

The crew were filming Gloriavale: A World Apart, a new documentary produced and directed by filmmaker Amanda Evans, who was already familiar with the community. She had interviewed a couple from the group for a TV show several years earlier, and thereby earned the trust and respect of its leaders.

This time around she was granted unprecedented access to the community, and visited about six times over the span of two years. "Being down there, it's like being in a parallel universe," Evans says.

While her latest project focuses largely on Paul and Pearl's relationship, it also offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the 530 people living at the mysterious 1700ha commune about 60km inland from Greymouth and just south of Lake Haupiri on the rugged West Coast.

The romance began as all Gloriavale relationships do - with a sign from God. Paul wasn't in love with anyone, but he felt it was God's will he find a wife.

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As far as fundamentalist Christian groups go, Gloriavale is one of the most dogmatic, says Dr Heather Kavan, an expert in extreme religion at Massey University. The community's world view is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and it has created a way of life based on the Bible's teachings. For an outsider to join, they must surrender their career, opinions, possessions, contact with the outside world and free will - a process known as 'submitting' to the church. "There's a lot of repression in these types of religions," Kavan says.

At Gloriavale, children are taught creationism. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and Easter are not celebrated. There is no contraception, and families of 10 or more children are common. Women are totally subservient to men, unable to question or correct them. There is no divorce. Children are not immunised. Men keep their hair short and dress in a light blue shirt and dark blue pants, while women wear long blue dresses and keep their hair covered.

The entire community lives in four large hostels. Everybody works for the community - men at one of the group's many businesses, including a dairy farm. There is no debt. All income goes into a communal purse, and all decisions are made by a group of eight men, called the shepherds, supported by a second tier of seven men, called the servants.

"There are not many Christian fundamentalist groups in which the leaders decide what you will wear, what time you will go to bed, and what you will eat," Kavan says. "The church achieves this by isolating members from the rest of the world so they're cut off from people who might alert them to how unusual this is."

To Evans, Gloriavale is as fascinating as it is troubling. Teenagers, for example, are polite, content and love doing their chores, and their experiences of the outside world are almost completely second-hand. "For Paul, both his mother and father were born inside the community, so does he have any real knowledge of what it's like to live in New Zealand?" she asks.

"And the only experience of New Zealand he gets is observing people in the street in Greymouth, or what the elders tell him. So his perception of the world is completely created by the leaders."

The Gloriavale community dates back to 1969 when Neville Cooper, an Australian evangelist who later changed his name to Hopeful Christian, set up a fringe group at a property called Springbank, near Cust in North Canterbury.

The group started small, but by 1988 had grown too large for Springbank, and in 1991 began a four-year move to the West Coast property they occupy today. The new home was named Gloriavale, after Christian's wife, and, in this isolated pocket of the country, it has continued to grow. The group is extremely publicity shy, and their appearances in news headlines are rarely flattering. In the 90s, Hopeful Christian was convicted on three charges of indecent assault, after sexually abusing a 19-year-old woman from the community with a wooden phallic object. He served 11 months at Paparua Prison before he was released on parole back to Lake Haupiri, NZPA reported at the time.

Then, in 2009, one of Christian's sons, Phil Cooper, detailed his own escape from the group and his father's sexual abuse in a book, Sins of the Father, bringing more unwanted attention to the community.

But those past events are absent from Evans' documentary - she doesn't think Gloriavale should continue to be defined by historic events. "Most of the time, when [Gloriavale] gets a spot in the media, it's usually [that] the journalist has decided [beforehand] what angle they're going to take," she says.

"It's not our job to put our own opinions on this film; it's them telling their own story. They see this documentary as being a way of explaining their lifestyle to the rest of New Zealand and showing New Zealand the model for a pious life."

When Kavan sees footage from Gloriavale, she gets the impression its members are pretending to be spiritual and happy. She believes that if they were truly following the biblical precept to listen to the "still, small voice within", it's unlikely they'd let the leaders control their lives.

It's difficult to be happy when you're not free to think for yourself, she says. "Gloriavale is one of those religious paths that most of us wouldn't want anything to do with, but it seems to work well for some of the people involved - especially the men at the top of the hierarchy."

Peter Righteous, an Australian ex-journalist who joined Gloriavale in 1985, aged 23, says that actually, it's the other way around. "Before I was converted, happiness was a pretty superficial thing - an impression you gave people to keep up appearances. But deep down, there was a quiet despair that needed to be dealt with," he tells Sunday. "I look upon my life as falling into two distinct parts - my first 23 years, and the life I've had in Christ since then. There is really no comparison between the happiness of the two lives."

Righteous visited the Springbank property after a chance meeting with some young members on a trip to New Zealand from his native Queensland. "Being a journalist on vacation, I thought, this will be a great opportunity to make my holiday tax-deductable," he laughs. "I literally sat down with my notebook. I started off interviewing all these people - the whole journo question thing, write down the answers - and after a while I just put my notebook aside, and I listened."

His interest went beyond journalistic curiosity; Righteous was raised in the Church of England, and after turning away from Christianity in his late teens, had spent the intervening years exploring different religions. He was struck by the total commitment those living at Gloriavale had to the Bible, and stayed a while.

One evening, a Gloriavale leader challenged him to write down everything it would cost him to join the community, and he gave it a go. "Was I willing to forsake my job? No problem there. Was I willing to forsake my friends? No problem. Was I willing to forsake my family? No problem there - if my family wasn't willing to do the will of God, well, I wasn't going to let that stand in my way. Salvation is too big a deal to pass over just because you've got family members who might get upset."

Righteous is articulate and warm, and slips Bible passages into conversation fluently. He teaches 10- and 11-year-olds at Gloriavale's private school, and, when pressed about how he can teach creationism in light of scientific opinion, says the arguments supporting evolutionism are flawed. Evolutionism, he says, is taught as one point of view, alongside creationism.

When asked how the community decides which business ventures to invest in, or whether he thinks the community will survive in the future, Righteous coolly reaffirms his total faith that God will provide. "We constantly stand back and look at the community and say, 'We haven't done this, God has done it.' It's not something we can take credit for," he says. "Our faith at the end of the day is that God can help us through all those things."

Evans revisited Gloriavale four months after the December 2012 wedding to find that Pearl was four months pregnant. She has since given birth - her child a third-generation Gloriavale member. It would be easy to dismiss Pearl and Paul - all those living at Gloriavale - as a bunch of dim zealots, she says, but in her experience they are friendly, talented people living perfectly happy lives.

"Being a journalist," Righteous says, "I've kind of stood back and looked at the community fairly critically at times, but the thing that impresses me is that it's a society. It's a social, cultural thing we've created here, based around the New Testament. It's not just crazy fanatics living on a farm in the back woods of the West Coast."

Gloriavale: A World Apart screens on TV2 at 9.30pm on Thursday, July 17. 

- Sunday Magazine

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