Rosie Overcomer shares her story about growing up in Gloriavale

Rosie Overcomer shares her story about growing up in Gloriavale

| NZ Herald: Grace Odlum |

When Rosie Overcomer looked at her newborn daughter’s face for the first time, she was overwhelmed with fear.

She was afraid of her daughter having the same upbringing as she had, in a place where women weren’t valued as highly as men – Gloriavale, the isolated Christian community on the West Coast.

“I looked at her in her cot and thought, ‘She’s not safe here’.”

Rosie visited Paraparaumu last week to tell her story about life in Gloriavale, and leaving the sect, at the Kāpiti Chamber of Commerce’s International Women’s Day luncheon, which attracted more than 200 people.

When Rosie was born, her life had already been decided for her – from being baptised, committing herself to the church, getting married and having babies.

She was the sixth of 10 children, in a family that was considered quite low in Gloriavale’s hierarchy.

She was also a woman and “in Gloriavale, the structure is kind of men at the top and women at the bottom”.

The leaders were at the top, and Rosie said she had always seen them as people who knew everything, so “who was I to question them?”.

“I truly believed the leaders were something special,” she told the luncheon guests.

She recalled learning Bible verses at school and said she could recite at least one whole book of the Bible.

Her teachers tried to make sure that, if anyone was good at something, it was squashed, she said.

She left school at 14 and started working, but there were big limitations on what jobs she could do because she was a woman.

She wasn’t allowed to work on the dairy farm, and her choices were essentially limited to kitchen work and laundry.

Eventually, the leaders decided she was fit for marriage and she knew they were going to pick one of two men.

She was certain she didn’t want to marry one of them. Fortunately, the other – her now husband Elijah – proposed to her and they had three of their six children in Gloriavale.

However, as time passed, the couple started to question things in the sect. “We, over time, thought ‘There’s a lot of things not right here’.”

They compiled a list of questions they wanted to ask the leaders, including some surrounding the jailing of leader Neville Cooper (known as Hopeful Christian). They were told he was arrested for preaching their faith but in fact he was convicted of indecently assaulting young women.

They took their questions to one of the leaders but he refused to speak to Rosie because of her gender.

“He sent me away – he said, ‘I don’t talk to women about those things, I’ll take your husband on a drive’, and then my husband never came back.”

Elijah was kicked out of Gloriavale but the leaders told Rosie he had left willingly and didn’t love her or their children any more.

“You might look at that and say you would know, and I did know, but I had grown up in a place where the leaders’ word was my own, they knew better, so who was I to question.”

That was the start of a period when the leaders tried to divide Rosie and her husband.

Once Elijah returned, the leaders had a long confessional that everyone attended, which allowed people to confess their sins – but Rosie said it was to instil fear.

It wasn’t long before Elijah was kicked out again, this time for helping someone to leave.

After weeks of begging for a phone call with him, Rosie was given a list of things she had to say, including telling him she didn’t love him and didn’t want to see him again unless he did as the leaders said.

The couple tried to meet in private but it went wrong and Rosie and her children were taken away on a plane and hidden from Gloriavale for many weeks, in an effort by the leaders to split her from Elijah.

She prayed he would find them – and he did. He called one day and they decided to return to Gloriavale, but they were becoming more sceptical.

“I just said, if the leaders can lie to us about Hopeful being in prison, and the reasons why he’s there … what else in our lives is a lie?”

The pair decided then that they would leave, but it was a difficult decision for Rosie.

She said that, when her brother left Gloriavale, the sect edited him out of all their family photos and no one was allowed to talk about him.

“This was a hard decision for me to leave because I knew first my character would be absolutely destroyed in front of everybody and then I would be deleted.”

She said parents took the blame for their children leaving and were shamed for it, which was her biggest worry.

When the day came for them to leave, they had a long meeting with the leaders, in which Elijah was shamed for wanting to leave and was told he was the devil.

The leaders tried to convince Rosie to stay by telling her that her children’s souls depended on her staying and she would be sending them to hell by leaving – but their threats were a huge red flag to her.

“I’ve never had so much clarity … as I’d had then.”

She was firm on her decision to leave with Elijah, and the leaders turned on her. “I can only depict it as hungry wolves.”

The couple went to Christchurch, as Elijah had two siblings living there, but on the way the van broke down and Rosie feared it was a sign from God that they shouldn’t have left.

Elijah went to look for a phone but couldn’t reach anyone. The man whose phone he had borrowed then lent him a BMW, telling him to return it when he could.

“And that was really the beginning of the generosity and love of people outside.”

That was more than 10 years ago, and now Rosie and Elijah have six children and manage a dairy farm near Fairlie, along with several other business ventures.