Gloriavale India is in the spotlight with new documentary

Gloriavale India is in the spotlight with new documentary

| NZ Herald | Emma Gleason |

In a covert visit captured by Escaping Utopia, two former members of Gloriavale – accompanied by an undercover camera crew – go inside the gates of the organisation’s Indian outpost.

Gloriavale is lodged firming, infamously in the New Zealand psyche. By now Kiwis are very familiar with the reclusive West Coast community in the South Island.

Less known is the community Gloriavale established in India in recent years.

Located in the state of Tamil Nadu, the property is modelled on the original Gloriavale community in Greymouth. It’s understood that before his death Hopeful Christian – Gloriavale’s founder. also known as Neville Cooper – had established a second Gloriavale community in southern India.

The offshoot has been around for at least 10 years, with some Indian news outlets reporting on the community (including speculation on funding sources and how Gloriavale purchased the farmland) and a handful of mentions in New Zealand media.

In 2006 the Hindustan Times reported that student Venkata Siva, sponsored by the Gloriavale Christian community to study English and agriculture, was sent back to India after falling out with the community – claiming pressure to marry, and alleging he was made to work six days a week without wages – having relocated to Greymouth after meeting Gloriavale members in India three years earlier.

But, until now, its existence was relatively opaque – especially compared to the considerable attention and coverage of the New Zealand branch.

Kiwis got inside look courtesy of TVNZ’s Escaping Utopia documentary last night, with the third and final episode of the investigation showing former members visiting Gloriavale’s Tamil Nadu branch.

The episode establishes that at least five Kiwi women had been living there for over a decade, married to local men, with the mission of replicating the New Zealand community, and that New Zealand’s Gloriavale operation supported the operation in India.

Two ex-Gloriavale members who helped set up the India branch appear on the episode, explaining how they were involved.

The Tamil Nadu offshoot is believed to be managed by an Overseeing Shephard, Faithful Stronghold. He is thought to have been brought from India to New Zealand as a youth, attending school at Gloriavale, and learning about the faith, before returning to India where he now runs the branch there.

Faithful appears in the documentary, and is questioned by the visiting ex-members about the safety of the women and children there.

That concern is one of the main reasons for the visit, which is part of the wider narrative of Escaping Utopia, which shares the stories of people who have fled the restrictive religious community.

One ex-member, Theo Pratt, spoke to the New Zealand Herald last week about her experience, and she’s one of the two women who visit the India branch in the episode.

She’s there to find her sister, Precious, for the first time in a decade, and see if she’s okay. Precious put her hand up to go to India – an opportunity that was offered to single women in the Greymouth community.

Since Pratt left Glorivale in 2016 she attempted to contact her sister in India many times, with only a couple successfully connecting – one of which is caught on camera in the episode, with Theo discovering Precious is 22 weeks pregnant with her sixth child.

Unsatisfied and concerned about whether Precious can access her documents if she ever wanted to leave, Theo – who has previously consulted media, lawyers and the human rights commission for advice – decides she needs to try see her sister in the flesh.

“I want to find out if they have access to their passports and birth certificates. We never did in Gloriavale,” Theo explains in the episode. “Is there any way out?”

Two weeks later she’s in India, having flown to Chennai (the capital of Tamil Nadu) and travelled to Tirunelveli.

The cameras have followed Theo and another ex-member, Roseanna Overcomer; two of the crew accompany wearing hidden recording devices to capture what unfolds.

Will it be hard to get in? And do the members have freedom? “It’s hard to leave Gloriavale in New Zealand,” Roseanna says. “How much harder is it in India?”

They’re allowed inside the gates, and Theo seeks out her sister. Eventually, or perhaps inevitably, they also bump into Faithfull himself; he wants to know why they’re there.

Faithful tells them that there have been 32 children born into Gloriavale’s Tamil Nadu community now, and that there are now seven families living on the property.

Theo attempts to question him and get some answers. She spends time with Precious, and gets to know her nieces and nephews, and tries to find the sister she knew in the woman she’s seeing for the first time in 10 years.

They explore the property, and cameras capture the dining room, school, and residences.

Knowing what she knows of Gloriavale’s New Zealand branch, and the strictness of the faith, Theo’s concern underpins the visit.

“I think they’re already at risk”.