Rachael is a long-time supporter of the work of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust and a survivor herself of another religious group who practices harmful social practices. She champions the cause of people who are able to free themselves from the shackles of thought-control groups.
Let’s first celebrate some of the film’s successes after 2 weeks:
-Top 10 box office after week 1
-Best opening weekend for any doco release in NZ in 2022 (beating Elizabeth & Velvet Queen)
-Best opening week for any doco release in NZ in 2022
-Highest grossing Kiwi doco in 2022
Congrats to the film team for putting together such a thought-provoking film.
Rachaels’ Take on the Gloriavale Movie
I have seen the Gloriavale movie documentary twice now. I have never been to Gloriavale. But after having seen the movie I feel an urge to again visit the West Coast. I fell in love with the coast on my honey moon over thirty four years ago. Early scenes in the movie capture the natural beauty, isolation and serenity of Lake Haupiri. It really is a beautiful location. If it were not for the constant smoke billowing from a solitary chimney on the property, the scene befo
re us would look like a still photograph. Gloriavale sits proudly, nestled between the base of the hills and the lake edge . John Ready looks on from the opposite side of the lake and describes this picture of tranquility as a machine that destroys people. Its hard to believe by looking at it from the outside. It causes one to pause. And think.
Inside Gloriavale it is far from tranquil. You see, Gloriavale members are mandated to produce children. It is a sin to use birth control or to avoid pregnancy. Families are typically very large as a result. No less than two hundred children attend school there, out of a total membership of around six hundred. Rare film footage captures the chaos inside their living quarters. I’m shocked to see toddlers running about unsupervised where it appears an unguarded open fire is lit. How does one adequately supervise so many children? No wonder sleep deprivation is normal . Human rights lawyer, Steve Patterson, described living conditions as being “ packed in like sardines”. Living conditions are substandard, with large families sharing one or two rooms. It seems there are no locked doors. With the lack of privacy comes the risk of sexual molestation, and this seems to be way too common.
Lets talk about Virginia Courage. It seems that Virginia was the first to speak up. I can’t help but feel that her name is prophetic. Virginia herself was twelve years old when sexually abused in her own bed, and she knew it happened to others too. As a mother, and living up to the meaning of her name, she courageously took her concerns about the lack of privacy, and the enabling of abusers, to the leaders. Did they listen? No. Rather, she was chastised for not being community minded. Virginia is not one to be shut up when it comes to protecting her children though. She wasn’t happy to “sit down” and wait on God to fix it. “God uses people. People are going to fix it”, she says. She approached her brother John, who had already been expelled, “Will you fight with me, brother?” She is one mother bear that Gloriavale leaders would do well not to mess with.
John describes Gloriavale as a machine. Its a machine in more ways than one. Just like a machine it was built and maintained by humans. Once turned on it has the ability to run itself as if it has a life of its own. It will still take humans to hit the off switch. As soon as children are born they are delivered to the machine where they are molded and shaped. The process was described aptly by Liz Gregory of the Gloriavale Leavers Support Trust who said they are “breeding a culture”. Hence, there is no need for “brainwashing” because they are programmed from the beginning. John’s machine analogy also highlights another puzzling question for me. How did Gloriavale evolve from humble, altruistic and self sufficient beginnings into an industrial empire? Why the need to produce wealth that is more than sufficient? Assets alone are worth more than 60 million. I understand their yearly income is in the tens of millions. The twofold purpose of the machine it seems is to produce unquestioning worker drones and to make money. Where does Christianity figure in all of this?
Gloriavale has been described as an “abuse of Christianity”. This is the view of Steven Patterson, himself a man of faith I believe. As soon as he read the transcript of John Ready’s testimony he knew he was observing a clear case of slavery, a crime in New Zealand. He explains that slavery involves keeping people in servitude on a property without an ability to leave. It’s true that there aren’t physical bars or chains keeping a person from leaving, but as Steven says, there are “psychological barriers’ to leaving, and Liz agrees, saying there are “emotional and mental chains” that bind people there. I would argue that there are both psychological and physical barriers to leaving. How many family heads have been deterred from removing their families from Gloriavale because of the inability to provide for them materially? It takes money that they don’t have, to provide the necessities of life, ie. food, clothing and shelter. In very practical terms, that is a mountain-like physical obstacle to leaving. I did find it odd that the directors chose to highlight the psychological “chains” over the practical ones. For example, Virginia elaborated how her fear of going to hell made her question leaving the group.
But this fear of going to hell, or experiencing some kind of divine retribution, is common to all religions. All religious people are bound by psychological, mental, and emotional chains, to one degree or another. They just may not think of it that way. “Freedom of religion” permits one to hold these views and to share them with others. It isn’t a crime. According to the Charities Act, the “advancement of religion” in New Zealand is presumed to be charitable and of public benefit. (Yes, presumed) This is why Gloriavale has enjoyed charity status for decades. It seems our laws do not yet reflect the knowledge that not all religious ideologies and practices are beneficial. Some are downright death dealing.
Lets meet Sharon Ready. She is the mother of both John and Virginia. Again, here is a brave woman living up to her name. After more than fifty years in the community she is “ready”. One thinks of the words of Isaiah “Here I am. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8) Sharon, it seems, is on a mission. She has gone to battle with the Gloriavale leaders in court as the principle plaintiff and a witness. I get the sense she feels she is being prophetically driven. The image of a river, with its long silvery tentacles criss crossing a pathway to the sea, through a seemingly boundless expanse of shingle, plays on screen while Sharon relates to us how she once had a dream. The image, like her dream, is profound and deeply spiritual. In her dream she was standing at the side of the grave of their leader Hopeful Christian (aka Neville Cooper) . This was at a time when the general thought was that he would never die. But, not only had he died, but everything he had built was being brought to nothing. Maybe inside she had always known something was wrong. One can only imagine the cognitive dissonance Sharon must’ve endured for years, ever since she was a newly-wed and Hopeful had wanted to film her in the marital bed. That’s when she said she stopped trusting him. When Hopeful died, with words of relief she expressed to God, “you ARE real!” As she relates this you get the sense that she was surprised. I love that near the end of the movie Sharon wears her pink outfit. I think that’s normally reserved for brides. She is blooming. It’s her time to bring an end to the machine that holds her children and grandchildren captive and to liberate them. She’s ready to be the mother and grandmother she’s always been meant to be. When filming began for the movie Sharon had sixty grandchildren. At the end of filming she has 75. She remains living on the Gloriavale property but as an outsider, shunned by her family there. Her love for her family keeps her there. Who would think that a religion should wield love as a weapon?
The Gloriavale leavers have an amazing team working for them and alongside them. The team comprises of the Gloriavale Leavers Support Trust and lawyers Brian Henry and Steven Patterson. Already the Employment Court has found in favour of three of the male leavers. The court has recognised them as being employees and not volunteers. Being employees means they are entitled to all the protections that other employees in New Zealand can expect. And they are entitled to a wage and control over their own money. Next week it will be the turn of the female leavers.
Brain Henry, a high profile trial lawyer, or barrister, is committed to seeing the cause through. He jokes that it could take him till he’s 75. He’s 71 now. But the wheels of change turn slowly and it could take decades to see all the necessary changes at Gloriavale, if it is to survive, and in our laws. Steven Patterson is preparing a Human Rights case, so watch this space.
My hope is that not only the current and former members of Gloriavale will benefit but the tens of thousands within New Zealand who are members of high control religious groups, like the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (Exclusive Brethren) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups exert high control over members and also weaponise love by mandating their members to shun former members, including family. The reality is that it is far from loving. The practice rips apart otherwise loving families. It’s death dealing, in that it leads some to dangerous coping behaviours and suicide. It also violates the basic fundamental human right to have a family and a private life , free of interference and coercion.
As it stands, it appears to me that human rights laws in New Zealand fail to protect us from discrimination and harm resulting from religious practices. Yet, it is written into the laws themselves that they must apply equally to everyone. I hope I live to see the day when they do.