Forced to wear uniforms, separated from their children and 'dissenters' evicted for asking questions: Life inside secretive sect was 'like being in a scary cult movie'

Daily Mail, UK/April 20, 2015

By Daniel Piotrowski

A father who walked out of a secretive Christian commune where everyone wears blue uniforms and birth control is non-existent said living in the community was like being in a scary thriller movie.

Elijah Overcomer, 26, left Gloriavale, a town of about 500 on New Zealand's west coast, with his wife, Rosanna, 29, and their children in late March 2013. Shortly following their departure, the family watched the 2004 psychological thriller The Village, by M. Night Shyamalan.

Mr Overcomer said the film - where residents of a pretend 19th century town fear the 'wicked' outside world - was a 'good comparison with our community', especially in their views of the greater world.

'(In the film), all the kids have grown up and been told the outside is unsafe. They even make their own scare tactics to scare people from going outside the wee village,' he said. 

'It's kind of the same thing here. You're told if you leave Gloriavale you're lost, you lose your Salvation.'

Sharing candid photographs of his family's time in Gloriavale with Daily Mail Australia, Mr Overcomer said he had been told there was 'a lot of sin' and 'bad things' in the greater world.

'You almost only get to know about the evil while you're there. 

'That's all you know to be outside Gloriavale, is a lot of evil and that sort of thing.'

But following their departure, the family were 'blown away' by the kindness and support shown to them by New Zealand churches in Christchurch and Timaru. 

The latter town, some 300kms south of Gloriavale, has become home to several former members of the sect recently following a virtual exodus. 

According to Sunday NZ program, 22 residents have left in the past two months. Among them includes the Ben Canaan family of 14, who famously walked out this March.

'When we left we received so much help and gifts from people especially churches at Christchurch and then at Timaru,' Mr Overcomer told Daily Mail Australia. 

'People (were) just helping us out giving us clothing, kitchen gear - heaps of stuff - and we were quite shocked with that.

'We've been blown away by how much love we've received outside of there. Even from people who aren't Christians, as well.

'There's a lot of really kind, caring people who want to help you. I mean, even in our district, you meet someone new and they just want to help. Just blown away.

The family have faced two particular challenges leaving Gloriavale. The most devastating is that the couple are mostly unable to contact their large extended family inside the commune.  

'Not being able to talk to them and see them is definitely the worst thing,' said Mr Overcomer, who is now managing a dairy farm and living in Timaru.  

'Everyone can adapt into a different lifestyle. But you can't adapt from leaving your family.' 

The deeply religious family were also forced to grapple with their views about Christianity. 

They were particularly afraid that, by walking out of Gloriavale they may have lost their 'Salvation' with God. 

'I guess the biggest thing, other than leaving family, was feeling like our salvation was lost. 

'For us, we felt that was the worst thing. Especially my wife really struggled with that. 

'It wasn't until we got good teaching from the pastor at our church and he taught us through the Bible really well so we could be confident that Gloriavale was wrong and that we were actually free to go wherever we like...

'That really gave us a lot of security in what we've done. What we've been told wasn't true... You still have to tell yourself that.'  

Mr Overcomer was initially kicked out of the Gloriavale for five weeks around Christmas 2012 after 'asking too many questions' of the Elders, who rule the sect. 

Among the matters he asked about was the history of founder Neville Cooper, who was convicted and spent nearly a year imprisoned on sex abuse charges in 1995

'I don't know what really turned the corner with them. 

'I guess the main thing is I even had the guts or whatever it was to ask them, to question it. 

'It might seem strange looking in from out there. (But) growing up there you're real scared of them (the Elders), scared of getting in trouble with them. 

'It was quite a courageous move to ask questions of them. Obviously I expected answers.'  

After five weeks of 'hell' separated from his family, Mr Overcomer 'repented' for his sins and returned home to Gloriavale. But the family soon decided to pick up and leave. 

Mr Overcomer, who had worked outside Gloriavale, particularly wanted to spend more time with his children as they grew up.

'I worked outside Gloriavale, "sharemilking" on a neighbour's farm for the community. It was kind of then I thought I'd like my own house and things. 

'And I'd like to look after my kids personally. There (in Gloriavale) your kids are raised by the system I guess. 

'School, pre-school children go to pre-school - you don't really get a whole lot of time with them. 

'With a farming lifestyle, you get to spend a bit more time with your children. You have a bigger input in their lives.   

He told Daily Mail Australia one of his 'biggest issues' with Gloriavale is how they separate dissenters from their families. 

'That's the biggest thing I want to see stopped. I had a guy working for me for a while - he's got back in now. 

'He was out for six months, away from his wife and family. He had three little children.

'It's that sort of behaviour I want to see stopped.' 

Mr Overcomer now manages a dairy farm with more than 700 cows. 

He said the family, who now have two more children, had 'definitely' adjusted to life in Timaru. 'We've been doing well.'

Daily Mail Australia approached Gloriavale for comment but did not receive a response.  

Life inside Gloriavale

Nestled on the banks of the picturesque Lake Haipuri on New Zealand's rugged West Coast, Gloriavale is a Christian community of around 500 people who follow a literal interpretation of the New Testament.

The community, which isolates itself from the outside world, was founded by Neville Cooper, a Australian evangelist. Cooper moved across the Tasman in 1969 with his wife, Gloria, and their ten children to found a Christian community.

As its membership swelled, in 1991 they purchased land by the scenic lake to live off. Mr Cooper - a controversial figure who spent almost a year in prison on sex abuse charges in 1995 - would later change his name to 'Hopeful Christian'.

Fleur Beale, the author of the Gloriavale book Sins of the Father, said the most striking thing about Gloriavale was the 'control those in power' - a group of elders - 'had over the ordinary people.''

'The women, particularly - it would be miserable to be a woman in Gloriavale,' Ms Beale told Daily Mail Australia. Birth control is non-existent.

'God wants you to get married and have as many children as you can. That's why they have big families.'Residents are required to wear a uniform. 

Women generally frock up in long, blue dresses - 'every single day', a former resident named Miracle told Daily Mail Australia.

Meanwhile, men wear neckties, dark blue pants and a light blue sleeved shirt. And while the personal use of technologies such as television and mobile phones is rare among 'ordinary people', Ms Beale said the community was 'very innovative', with extensive commercial operations.

Residents do not take any wages, but work hard for the community's dairy and deer farms.The community consists of more than 80 families, according to Gloriavale's official website, and they live together in large, communal hostels.

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