On the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, a religious cult named Gloriavale Christian Community closed itself off from the rest of the world in 1969.
Founded by the self-styled and self-named Australian religious leader Hopeful Christian – who was convicted and jailed on three charges of indecent sexual assault of a young woman in 1995 – the 500-strong community was run according to a strict and oppressive interpretation of fundamental Christianity.
Women had to cover their heads, show no flesh so as not to tempt sin from the menfolk, do all the domestic work, submit to their husbands and birth as many babies as they could.
Eight years ago, Lilia Tarawa – granddaughter of Hopeful Christian – escaped with her family into what she had always believed to be the evil, wicked world. This is an extract from her memoir about her life in the cult.
“Take out your Bibles.”
Every day began with a Bible reading.
I lifted my desk lid and removed the thick King James Bible that had been issued to me. It was an old book that had been rebound in the community print shop. I stroked the dull-red cover and held the book to my nose. I loved the musty smell of the pages.
“We’re reading from Hebrews 13:17,” Peter pointed to the boy closest to him. “Nathan, read one verse and then you others continue around the room.”
Pages rustled for a brief moment before Nathan began in a clear voice. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves ... ”
The boy beside Nathan picked up the next verse. After each of us had read aloud, Peter finished the chapter. For the rest of class we were taught that to sacrifice one’s self-will and serve the church was the only way to salvation. There was a godly order established in the church – the highest power was God and then Church leaders. Husbands were to submit to the church and wives must submit to their husbands. Children came last and were expected to obey their parents who served the Lord.
“The leaders watch for our souls. If you are obedient to the church you will live long on the Earth and the Lord will bless you,” Peter told us.
He began to pray for our salvation and we clasped our hands and bowed our heads. He thanked God for the wonderful place the leaders had built for us and prayed that we would be saved from the lusts of the world.
We had two more classes after that and I was impatient for them to finish. Today was Friday, PE day, and I couldn’t wait to be out on the field, kicking a soccer ball around.
Peter dismissed us and we tore down to the field, with Jubilant messing around as always and making us laugh at his jokes.
Gloriavale didn’t allow competitive games because it was cause for people to be lifted up in pride. We had to play soccer without keeping score, which I thought was stupid because the whole point of sport was to win. The long dresses were so frustrating to run in but I tackled the football off Jubilant anyway. I didn’t care if my dress flung up, there was no way I was going to let our team lose.
Our teacher for the session was Nathaniel Constant so I knew to be careful not to make him angry because his fuse was extremely short. Grace and I called him “Nathaniel Constantly Annoying” behind his back. We kept our distance from his aggressive temper. It didn’t deter Jubilant though. He kept on with the jokes, kicking the ball to the wrong player – anything for a laugh.
Nathaniel yelled at him, then he yelled again. Jubilant cooled it for about five minutes but it wasn’t in his nature to behave even though Nathaniel’s anger was building.
It only took one more smart remark before his temper erupted. “Get out! Leave! Now! Get up to the main building. Go!”
Jubilant grumbled and left the field, but not without throwing a last snide comment. Nathaniel tore after him, caught up and kicked him, then bashed him across the head.
The game halted and the class watched, stunned into silence as Nathaniel kicked our classmate again and then again. He forced him to walk and kept smashing him across the head and kicking him for the entire 30 or so metres to the main building. Jubilant was sobbing and trying to protect himself as he stumbled up the road.
Even though the church taught that it was godly for disobedient children to be beaten, this was so wrong. I was only 11 years old but as I stood there, helpless and watching, my hands to my throat, I knew with every fibre of my being that this was wrong. It was the most shocking thing I’d ever witnessed.
I couldn’t keep playing and neither could the other kids. We were numb from the shock of what had happened. All of us left the soccer field and returned to the classroom. I couldn’t concentrate and after school I found Grace and fumed in disbelief about what had happened.
That evening I poured it all out to Mum. She was furious, both at what Nathaniel had done but also because she couldn’t do anything about it. She was a woman and had little power to intervene in the men’s realm. Both of us waited to see what punishment the men would give Nathaniel. Nothing happened and he continued teaching us. I was disgusted.
The incident fanned my loathing for Gloriavale’s stance on child discipline into a raging furnace. The leaders called it godly, but I thought it was abuse. I couldn’t see how beating a child because you felt angry and full of rage was a demonstration of God’s love.
Some leaders not only encouraged violent beatings but scolded parents who were lenient. This was a church that preached non-violence and was anti-war, yet it saw fit to punish their young for minor errors. The leaders defended their philosophy based on the scripture “spare the rod and spoil the child”. Some men took this literally, using weapons like polystyrene pipe to beat their sons. Certain other members rebelled against the impositions and refused to treat their children badly, and I witnessed loving relationships between many parents and their children.
A wife would, in strict confidence, show me her young children, who had horrific marks on their legs, bottoms and backs where her husband had beaten them. Rage boiled in my chest when I saw those poor children suffering. I vowed to unleash the fury of hell if any husband of mine ever laid a finger on a child of ours in malice.
One quiet morning I was in the high school with my head down studying, as were my 30 other classmates. I was having trouble with a difficult maths problem and bit my lip in deep concentration.
Suddenly a loud noise jolted me out of focus. We looked up from our books, all of us startled. It was Shepherd Fervent bursting into the room.
Fervent was dragging his son Willing by the collar of his shirt and he yanked him to stand before the class. I cringed.
“Children look here!” Fervent commanded.
We didn’t want to look. Willing’s eyes were puffy and red. He’d been crying and he hung his head to the floor.
Fervent puffed out his chest and threw back his shoulders. His balding head caught the light from the window and he smoothed down the sides of his oily hair. “The Bible says, ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord’,” he shouted. His other hand held a limp leather strap. “Proverbs says, ‘Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die’.”
I couldn’t stop looking at the strap because it made me sick to the stomach. Fervent was going to make an example of Willing?
How could he do that to a boy of 13?
“What do you have to say, son?” Fervent poked his son.
Willing stared at the ground and mumbled an apology for being disobedient to his father. I felt a sliver of hope. Maybe the apology was enough to clear him?
Fervent spat a lecture of how godly parents beat their children to submission.
Then he turned to his son.
I screwed my eyes shut, thinking Fervent was going to strap Willing’s hand, but my stomach dropped with horror at his next words.
“Pull down your pants. Bend over.”
In that moment I wanted nothing more than to kill Fervent. To my eyes he was scum of the earth. Willing looked shocked, but obeyed his father.
Fervent took a wide stance and drew the strap back over his head. Without warning the belt flashed down and bit into Willing’s flesh. He moaned and whimpered with pain. Fervent didn’t stop. With all his strength he whipped the poor boy again, and again, and again.
Bile rose in my throat and I turned away from the appalling scene. Fervent was a pig and no man of God. My knuckles turned white and I gripped the desk in fury. How dare that man – a leader – treat a child this way?
I shut my eyes to block out the horror and covered my ears. I couldn’t watch even though I knew I risked punishment for showing disagreement. The whole time I prayed, “Please God, let it stop. Please make it stop.”
When the beating ended I still couldn’t look up. My heart knew it was disrespectful to gawk at Willing’s exposed flesh. At the very least, I’d offer the boy some respect in his shame.
I stared at the pencil groove on the edge of my desk, and my eyes burned with unshed tears. Fervent left his humiliated son standing at the front of the room. The room was deathly silent. When the overseeing teacher gave him a curt nod, Willing stumbled to his desk and buried his sobs in his hands. The class ended and I stumbled to the lockers in a daze.
From that moment I had nothing but love and compassion for Willing. I was popular and loved at school because I was a gifted student of high-status birth so I did my best to include him in my social circles.
An exclusive group of us would meet in the evenings to play basketball or soccer. We were the misfits and the ones who thought outside the box. Willing hung out with us and I developed something of a crush on him which I dared not tell anyone for fear of punishment.
The rules, though, didn’t change my feelings. What I believed was that all children deserved love.
Babies were a big part of life in Gloriavale. Birth control and abortion were strictly forbidden and we were proud of how we didn’t murder children in the womb like so many people in the world.
Grandad was very fond of bragging that we had the biggest families in New Zealand. He liked to show visitors a photo he’d taken of all the children who were number three or more in birth order, saying, “None of these children would be here if their parents practised birth control and didn’t have a faith in God.”
A favourite sermon of his was to preach about how lucky we were to have been conceived by Christian parents. He’d say, “Guess where the most dangerous place in the world is? It’s not on the road in cars. It’s not flying through the air in planes. It’s in the womb of an ungodly woman.”
My grandmother bore 16 children to Grandad Hopeful before her death and I grew up surrounded by cousins’ babies. Grandad Hopeful would say, “Children are an inheritance of the Lord. The fruit of the womb is His reward.”
Mum taught me to knit all sorts of babywear – cardigans, booties, hats; I always knitted a matching set for each of Aunt Patie’s babies. Some of the women could knit a whole garment in just a few hours.
Childbirth was highly celebrated and parents were expected to prepare their children for the practicalities of having a large family. Boys and girls aged 10 and older would often attend their mother’s births to assist and learn about the procedure.
We birthed our children at home. There was no need to visit a medical institution for something that was a purely natural part of life. God had promised us that women who continued in holiness and faith would be saved in childbearing. But if there were problems with a birth then a birthing mother would be taken to Greymouth hospital.
The district midwife made regular visits to pregnant women and attended the births to ensure nothing went wrong.
The first baby I ever saw born was my Aunt Patie’s second son when I was 10. When he came out he had the umbilical cord wrapped round his neck, he was blue and wasn’t breathing. He was fine once the midwife got him breathing. Afterwards she asked me if I was OK, but to me this was normal because I’d never seen a baby born before, so I was blissfully unaware of how severe the situation was.
I was there to observe and help with my mother’s next four births: Asher, Judah, Serena and Melodie. Because I was now the oldest girl I learned all the child-rearing skills too. I bathed my younger siblings, changed nappies, helped with potty training and when the babies cried in the night I would climb out of bed to attend to them to relieve my exhausted mother. I watched the women help each other breastfeed, if one mother had an abundance of milk she would suckle the child whose mother didn’t have a good supply.
Women were allowed about two weeks off after giving birth but then they were straight back into the workforce. I always wondered how some of the ladies did it. They would birth during the night and the next morning be at the meal table to present the child to the community. The husband would make a big announcement: “The Lord has blessed us with a new baby boy and his name is Courageous.” Everyone would clap and cheer.
When Patie had her fourth child, complications arose after she’d gone into labour. Her waters had broken, she was fully dilated but the baby wasn’t coming. I was rubbing her back, giving her sips of juice and bathing her face with a cool cloth. The midwife decided she needed urgent medical help but we were so far away from any hospital with no time to wait for an ambulance. We would have to transport Patie ourselves.
The boys brought round one of the stripped-out vans, threw down a mattress, blankets and pillows and we helped Patie lie down. I sat by her head and held her hands as her body was being wracked by gigantic contractions. About 20 minutes into the journey we went over a sharp bump. Patie groaned and gasped out, “Something’s moved. I can feel the baby coming. Right now!”
I shouted, “Stop the van!”
Patie was clenching my hand, almost breaking it. I ignored the pain of it and repeated over and over, “It’s OK. Just breathe through it. Go with the pain.”
She was bearing down. The back doors of the van flung open, I scrambled out, the midwife climbed in and a few minutes later my tiny, screaming cousin Submissive was born. The midwife handed her to me after her mother had a cuddle. I cradled her squawking body in my arms. “Welcome, little girl. You’re going to be so loved.”
This is an edited extract from Daughter of Gloriavale: My life in a religious cult by Lilia Tarawa (Allen & Unwin)