Escaping Utopia: What it takes to break free from Gloriavale

Escaping Utopia: What it takes to break free from Gloriavale

| RNZ | Saturday Morning |

Around 600 people (including around 350 children) currently live at Gloriavale – a strict Christian community on the West Coast.

Listen to the interview

Escaping Utopia airs at 8.30pm on Sunday 24 March and continues Monday and Tuesday.

Overcomer, who left Glorivale with her family in 2013, said the birth of her first baby was the first wake-up call that she and her husband Elijah should get out.

“That just made it really real for me how I had grown up and I didn’t want the same for my child.”

Overcomer said she was sexually abused by multiple people at Gloriavale from the age of six until she was in her teens.

“I remember saying to Elijah that Honour, our eldest daughter, wasn’t safe once she turned seven. That was just, in my mind, a cut-off point and we had to have made some serious changes within the community before she got to that age.

“We found out along the way that nobody actually wanted to change and they just wanted to hide the abuse. That’s the point we realised we had to try and move away from there rather than keep trying to make it a better place in there.”

It was three years before Overcomer and her husband actually left the community – and the only life they had known.

“Once you open your mind to [the idea] that we’re not living in the best place on earth, there’s things wrong here, you actually start to see a lot more of the flaws.

“Another key turning point for me was being blatantly lied to about some stuff my husband had done. I realised in that moment that if the leaders have lied to me about this then what else in my life is a lie?

“These men that were apparently ‘called of god’ actually were fallible human beings quite happy to lie to keep me and my husband apart. That was the final decision for me.”

Elijah had been ready to leave Gloriavale for a long time, Overcomer said.

“He was kind of waiting for me to come to that point. As soon as I was ready we made plans to leave.

“I actually can’t recall why we chose the date we chose. But I remember talking about just staying for a few more weeks to say our goodbyes without actually saying goodbye. But just to see our families for the last time because we thought that we probably wouldn’t see them again.

“[Before we left] it was just a few weeks of kind of laying low and spending quality time as much as we could with the people that we loved that we might not see again. And then the day came that we’d decided we’d go and we… left.”

The couple now have six children. The three born in Gloriavale were one, two and three years old when the family left the community – with a tent and without any idea where they were going.

It took Overcomer three years to adjust to the world outside Gloriavale and figure out what her own beliefs were outside of the church doctrine.

“That was really my first goal as an individual and then as a mum, as well, to understand what I believed and why. I had never known why I believed what I did, I was just meant to believe.

“The biggest thing for me was reading the Bible on my own for a start, and knowing that if God was real then I could understand it and I didn’t need the leaders to interpret it for me.

“And then finding other people that showed to us that they were good people by their actions. We could actually have conversations with them and feel safe to have those conversations, get advice.”

It took her a while to get her head around the idea that belief was not always “very black and white” and that opposing beliefs could co-exist. 

“People believe different things and just because they believe different things doesn’t mean they don’t get on.”

As she began slowly “unlearning” habits and coping strategies acquired at Gloriavale, she had to also unearth her own idea of truth.

“The biggest thing to process and understand is that [Gloriavale doctrine] is not the truth … it’s about the control that you’re under or a belief that you’ve been made to believe that actually isn’t true and that’s actually a lie. For me, it was understanding that [Gloriavale doctrine] was the lie and I didn’t have to be under that anymore.”

While many people assumed Gloriavale members were “just a whole bunch of crazy people”, in Overcomer’s view most were actually “good” or “very good” people who joined what they thought was a purposeful movement.

“[Gloriavale members] joined something that they thought was going to be a good thing. And what it is now is not what they had in mind when they joined.”

Overcomer’s friends who still live in the Gloriavale community will not talk to her. She has self-initiated contact with her family, who she said had become “a lot more receptive” to connecting with her as the years passed.

“For a long time after we left. I would have been viewed as someone who had given up my faith, I had given up the truth, and now I had given myself over to the devil for the devil to destroy. And ultimately I am going to hell in taking my kids to hell as well.”

She hoped her family members would one day be free to live their own lives, like her, her husband and her children.

“I believe that everybody has immense gifts that God’s given them and people in Gloriavale get that all taken away from them. I have hope, that’s what keeps me going. I have hope for a better future for my family and friends in Gloriavale.”