Two weeks ago I met a man in blue overalls outside a public toilet and the next day after a very fortuitous bit of hitch-hiking I spent the afternoon and night as a guest of New Zealand’s reclusive Gloriavale christian community.
Standing beside the road in Jacksons there did not seem much prospect of any traffic taking the turning towards Gloriavale but I scribbled out a sign anyway. Just moments later a big truck turned off the main road and stopped Big trucks never, hardly ever, stop for hitch-hikers these days. Peter did.
“What does your sign say?” Gloria Vale. ““What are you going there for?” (Imagine a disbelieving kiwi accent). I was invited to stay. “Ha. Were you now? In that case it’s your lucky day. Truck’s full of cattle feed for one of their farms. I’ll take you. Can’t promise they’ll let you go though”.
He was joking I think.
A few hours later after sharing dinner with over five hundred adults and children, all dressed in uniform blue, Hopeful Christian the community’s founder and leader invited my friend and I to join him in a room off to the side of the large hall where we had eaten.
I was taken by surprise as we entered the room because a life-size model of a woolly mammoth was filling a third of it. But that was not what Hopeful wanted us to see. On the wall he showed us a large group photo of a lot, but not all, of the Gloriavale community.
Hopeful explained that they are all those who are not first or second- born children, people he suggests would not exist were the community to use birth control or allow abortion. He considers both to amount to murder. And the god in which he believes will be in no mood to forgive either on the soon-coming judgement day.
Now in his late eighties, Hopeful Christian is Neville Cooper who founded the community, previously known as the Cooperites, in the 1960s. In the 1990s he was convicted of the indecent assault of three girls aged 12-19 in the mid 1980’s on the evidence of his son and a number of young women from the community. He was sentenced to five years in jail, serving eleven months.
But there has been no consequent fall from grace for Neville at Gloriavale, the commune-campus named after his deceased wife, on New Zealand’s South Island.
Hopeful sits at the head of the dining table and leads the group of men known as ‘shepherds and servants’ who run the community and their various million-dollar business enterprises.
It’s his very literal interpretation of the King James Bible that defines the way of life and the life-choices of anyone unlucky enough to be born at Gloriavale.
Men make all the decisions. Wives may be consulted but husbands decide. All decisions are based entirely on guidance they seek and find in the bible. Whatever your personal point of view, even if everyone thinks the same way, if the bible has anything to say on the matter then the decision has already been made.
Over half of the five hundred and forty strong community are under fifteen, not just because birth control is not used but also because sexual love, within marriage, is encouraged as a celebration of God’s love. And because the primary role of women is believed to be to produce children in his honour – one after another from the moment of marriage until their fertility is exhausted. Just like the poor cows on the community’s three dairy farms.
On reaching the age of sixteen a young man can choose to marry, because the bible says so. He will already have been working full time for at least two years on one of the dairy farms, the deer farm, in the on-site petfood ingredients factory, for the high-end hunting business or even in the light aircraft maintenance hangar. He might be a tradesman or ‘teacher’. The community has its own school and does all its own plumbing, electrical and construction work.
His wife-to-be will be chosen by him from a very small selection of women suggested to him by the ‘shepherds and servants’ who must take care to ensure that he chooses only from amongst women not closely related to him. The community has grown from just a small group of founding members and their offspring, with very few joining from ‘outside’. That does not leave the young man much choice.
The young woman, who probably works as a teacher, in the kitchen or sewing room gets no choice at all. We spoke with one lovely young woman in the kindergarten who at twenty-two is old to remain unmarried and desperate to find a husband before it’s too late for a sixteen year old boy to show any interest in her. She’s all-too-keen to start making babies for Jesus. Her friend was ‘so blessed’ to be chosen recently. She prays that she will be chosen soon.
We slept in one of the four large hostels where families live communally, each having one or more modern but simply-furnished room with a large double bed for parents and bunks for their children. Large families are the norm. Twelve kids is common. I had dinner with a man of about fifty who already has fifty-six grandchildren.
The day starts early with anyone not already at work streaming in to the main hall for breakfast. With over five hundred people in the room, very many of them young children it’s surprisingly calm and ordered. It’s also slightly surreal since the walls are decorated with the very well executed jungle backdrops and disney castle scenery sets of the artistically ambitious annual show to which the community invites outsiders as part of its evangelical work.
The long neck of a large yellow and green furry dinosaur reaches out, over and across some of the long dining tables. Like the mamoth, it’s animatronic. Its neck sways from side to side as its mouth opens and closes in time to music.
One of the school teachers explains to me that dinosaurs roamed the earth after its creation 6000 years ago and that they survived the great flood of 4400 years ago because Noah took them onto his ark, two by two, along with all god’s other creatures. “Baby dinosaurs most likely” he said, as the ark might not have been big enough for full grown specimens. After the flood they were hunted to extinction by man. Dinosaur is a new word. We used to call them dragons.
Another tells me that he much prefers helping his students on their spiritual journey to ‘dealing with all that academic stuff’ which he thinks will be of less use to to them.
Young boys wander the hall with microphones passing them to a dozen or more men, women and children who offer up prayers for the community’s daily activities and also for the ‘lost souls’ in the outside world. I nearly choke on my toast when one man includes in his prayer the idea that it might be God’s will that christians captured by ISIS in Libya ‘forgo their lives’ (by beheading) as part of his grand plan for us all.
After we’ve eaten and the days transportation needs have been co-ordinated (the community runs a pool of Peugeot cars, otherwise quite rare in New Zealand) women attend to their children and men gather in groups for music practice before work. The night before at dinner sixty young adults had jumped up from the dinner table to sing beautifully for us.
That was just before Hopeful took us to the room with the elephant in it. Just before things got a bit tricky between us when he chose his moment to challenge aggressively my apparent lack of faith.
If I can’t see the literal truth of the bible I’m a fool (so is the Dalai Lama, the Pope’s pretty much the antichrist). If I’m not ready to account for my sins (and he takes me for a sinner for sure) on the coming judgement day then I’m self-regarding. If I don’t believe in the coming judgement day or the god that I’m supposed to be judged by then I’m the most arrogant man he’s ever met.
He labours his point. He’s a close-stander. He shouts. He pokes me in the chest with his blunt finger. He splutters as he speaks so fast that he can’t keep up with himself and his wild imaginings of me. He hadn’t bothered to ask anything about me, other than what I don’t do for a living (which did not impress him), before he launched into this personally offensive tirade. Unusually for me (we were 40km up a dirt track without a car), I refrained from responding. Initially at least.
Luckily we were with the young man, one of nine brothers, already a father of four, who invited me to visit Gloria Vale – I think it’s an offer more often made than accepted – when we met the day before outside the toilets on Arthur’s Pass, high up where the road from Christchurch crosses the southern alps. He was able to steer us to the safer ground of his hostel where we discuss his beliefs and our lack of them in friendly terms.
Like the elderly gent, hailing from the cottonfields of Mississippi, who had spent the afternoon showing us all around Gloriavale (the workshops, kitchen, school, milking parlour, hangar and hunting lodge), he is just as fervent in his beliefs, just as ardent in embracing the coming apocolypse (seeing it coming in ISIS moving towards Israel), just as completely delusional about the creation and everything since. They both know the scripture and quote it when they feel it fits what we are talking about. But they do not protest our not sharing their world view. They are welcoming, warm, concerned for us and our spiritual welfare. They are entirely convincing.
I learnt that as well as rejecting all organised religions as eagerly and completely as they reject atheism, condemning 99% of the world’s population to eternal damnation, they don’t agree with the look-alike Amish (way too liberal, yet stuck in the past) would not have agreed with the Shakers (did not do marriage, hence none of them left to disagree with), don’t hang with the Mennonites (some tolerance of gay people) but are not a million miles off sharing a world view with the Hutterites (who also do the communal living thing). They could maybe get along with the Jehovah’s Witnesses except for failing to agree on whether Jesus took on the sins of the world (they say he did, the JHs say not).
Heaven must be a very small place. Hardly anyone is going to make the judgement day cut.
Hopeful Neville, the surprisingly uncharismatic snake-oil salesman behind this amazing sham-spiritual enterpise, is possibly the least convincing christian I’ve ever met. At dinner and breakfast he peppers his remarks, tourettes-like, with “because God is real“. Having met him in the flesh, all worked up as he was, I’m not sure he believes it himself and in the end I told him so (I’ve got a tent, I can walk). He didn’t like that much but it did at least stop him banging on about abortion.
But it doesn’t really matter if he believes it or has just convinced himself to believe it because he’s acting as if he does and to be born into this community, despite the obviously strong sense of non-selfish love for each other, and a real common cause, is to have your life, your freedom of choice, stolen from you. Essentially by him.
A community member told me that I had not seen the best of Hopeful Christian during my visit. That he lives his life entirely in the interest and love of others. That there is a lot of rubbish about him on the internet (his sex-offending conviction?). Even that he was a WWII fighter pilot (I can’t find any record of that).
I hope no-one is at Gloriavale against their free will. Every now and then someone makes the break, leaves their family and friends, for good, and heads out to make their own way in the world. A family of fourteen did so just this week. Lucky, brave them.
I pity those left behind, however content and fulfilled they claim to be, even if as ‘happy in the love of the Lord’ as the ex-addict who kindly drove us back to the main road and the real world. There are small children everywhere at Gloriavale. Adults wake up every day and choose again the Gloriavale way of life. The kids don’t have a choice. My overwhelming reaction watching them at breakfast was sadness. They are so quiet. They will be denied a decent education. Denied the chance and choice to be whoever and whatever they are or turn out to be.
They will be led in the way of their Lord towards a lifetime of living a lie, following exactly in their parents’ footsteps, bringing ever more children into their small, closed world, children they are going to struggle to feed and clothe, in a community that is going to struggle to maintain its way of life.
Anyone who believes Genesis ought to understand the resource implications of a population explosion. Three dairy farms and a rendering plant might bring in enough to feed them all now but relying on a combination of ‘the Lord will provide’ and the coming apocolypse removing the need for him to provide is not a viable strategy for even the medium term.
I hope Neville Cooper is long-dead before the community he’s mis-leading runs out of time and money. He’s the kind of a full-on nutter I could imagine doing a Jonestown.
The Gloriavale Christian community, despite often being described as reclusive, has an honest and open website which you can find at www.gloriavale.org.nz
I did not take any pictures while at Gloriavale It was not that sort of a trip. So I’ve borrowed the pictures used here from various sources via the wonders of the internet. If any of them are yours and you’re unhappy about me using them, please do get in touch.