Serafina Tane grew up in the Camp David religious cult. This is what it felt like to leave

ABC News, Australia/January 3, 2022

As told to Conversations with Sarah Kanowski

Serafina Tane was born into a religious cult on New Zealand's South Island. The leader was the charismatic but abusive Douglas Metcalf, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus. For Serafina, the cult was her family. But leaving Camp David for a life without religious rules was more complicated than she had imagined.

When I've been back, I'm like, "Wow, it's like something out of a movie."

A lot of people would think that it was like living in a castle. There were watchtowers painted white and padlocks on the gates. It's home, from the inside, but on the outside it's very walled, gated. You can't get in unless you have the combination, or somebody lets you in.

It was fun. There were lots of things to explore. We had this sunken garden and it was all paved and there were waterfalls and the inside of the walls had paintings of flowers and trees.

We had a different room [for everything]. So we'd have the library, we'd have the heraldry room, we'd have the sword room.

The rock room had these all these rocks that were gifted by people who had been into collecting rocks before they joined the cult. You go in and there's just these amazing rocks. Some of them, when you turn off the lights, glow in the dark.

My family was responsible for looking after all the animals, so we rode horses and I had pet lambs. We milked the goats. I was growing up on a farm with the other kids, running around, building huts, riding our bikes around – just having lots of fun.

We wouldn't celebrate Christmas, we'd celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in October, and we'd have a week-long celebration.

We'd dress the horses up, we'd be all dressed up in costumes and we'd walk around [the property]. It was a festival and a celebration, and it was just getting dressed up and colourful. I loved it. I really loved it. It was really exciting.

[Cult leader Douglas Metcalf] looked like Santa, but without the white beard. It was a dark beard. He was just like a friendly grandpa kind of person. He wasn't tall. He was a little bit tubby, I suppose. Not an imposing person.

And that's the fascinating thing – it was his personality that drew people to him, his openness, his friendliness. Wherever he walked around Camp David, people would always follow him. He just had that charisma.

On special ceremonial occasions he would have a cape, and everybody would have these staffs. His was always decorated and fancy looking. He'd dress up like a prince, I could imagine, from medieval England.

There was a lot of Middle Eastern symbology, because he spent a lot of time in the Middle East and brought that into the cult. He [said he] went into the desert and an alien spaceship came and he went on the spaceship.

And I'm not sure what happened on the spaceship, but somehow, because of that, he needed to come back and create this community in New Zealand.

It was a real mixture of his own concoction of his life experiences, what he wanted to pull together and create his own version of religion and Christianity.

We were taught that Jesus didn't die on a cross and that he died on a stake with his hands above his head, not with his arms out. So actually the cross became, in a way, an evil symbol for us.

For me, a lot of what was done was around fear. In cults, they control through fear, anything that is going to make people afraid.

[As a kid] you're just so naive to everything and you completely trust everything that's going on around you. You've been told there's bad things outside of the cult, or that evil was outside of the cult, but we're safe. The only people that were OK were the people who lived in Waipara, New Zealand.

As I got older, I'm like, 'How come only 300 people in Waipara, New Zealand are going to go to heaven and everyone else in the world is going to hell?' That didn't make sense. How can God do that to these people?

As females we had to wear skirts and dresses always below our knees. We weren't allowed to wear singlets or anything like that. Our shoulders always had to be covered. We had to wear a headscarf.

We weren't allowed to wear sandals or thongs. You weren't allowed to have anything that separated your big toe from your other toe because that's a sign of slavery, apparently.

We weren't allowed to wear makeup, nail polish, anything like that. We weren't allowed to have any piercings. We weren't allowed to wear black, purple, red, gold, royal blue. We had just black and white rules.

[After Douglas Metcalf died] Daryl, his son-in-law, got anointed by the elders to become the next leader. But he was very different. No charisma. He was very authoritarian, very structured in the way that he did things.

Things started to get very serious. It slowly started to fall apart from there.

I thought people were making up [abuse allegations] to discredit Douglas Metcalf, to discredit Daryl.

That was a really hard time. It's like you realise, OK, this is real. This man that I respected, that I loved, that I looked up to, is not a good person, is a bad person and hurt people. Everything that he said is a lie.

And then you start thinking, well, everything my parents believe is a lie. And everything they've told me is a lie. It was the ultimate betrayal, I suppose.

When I first took my scarf off [after leaving the cult] I was so sure I would be struck down by lightning. I took my scarf off and I was like, "Oh, I got away with that. Nothing bad happened. What else can I do?"

And then I got my ears pierced and nothing happened apart from it being very painful. I wore jeans instead of a skirt and nothing happened. And it was just like this progression.

Chaos was the best way that I can describe it. There's no rules and you've got nothing. Everything that guided you was gone, so you have to make this up yourself.

If you can't trust people in the world and you can't trust everything that you've been raised on and the people that have raised you, then who do you trust?

You don't trust yourself because you don't know yourself, because you've never been taught to know yourself. You don't have that confidence in yourself. So it was complete chaos and you're just making it up as you go.

I wanted to travel. I always thought I would never be allowed to travel because I'd be dead. So I was just waiting to travel when Jesus came back. And I thought, I can travel now.

So I set off overseas and I travelled for about five years backpacking and I spoke to a lot of different people from different faiths, different beliefs. It was exploration. I met so many amazing people.

I didn't realise the world was full of just incredible people. It wasn't what I'd been taught. And you learn that everybody has their different points of view, the different perspectives based on their upbringing. But the majority of people in the world are just really beautiful people.

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