Life after Gloriavale: Former member speaks

Stuff Fairfax Media, New Zealand/August 4, 2016

By Tess Brunton

Gloriavale would "fall to pieces" if its members knew the truth about their leader Hopeful Christian and his sexual convictions, a former member says.

Seventeen months after leaving the controversial West Coast Christian community, South Canterbury dairy farmer James Ben Canaan gave his first face-to-face interview on Wednesday.

Ben Canaan admitted he had been reluctant to speak out for fear of his experience being wrongfully portrayed.

However, he changed his mind in the hope sharing his story might help New Zealanders understand the "real" Gloriavale.

Born in 1974, Ben Canaan was 12 when his family moved into the Springbank Christian Community site in North Canterbury. The site was donated by Ben Canaan's father, John.

In 1991, Ben Canaan moved to the newly established Gloriavale site on the West Coast. He remained there until March last year when he, his wife, Hope, and their 12 children escaped to Timaru.

Unraveling the truth from the lies

The Ben Canaan family are still "very interested" in Gloriavale and are up-to-date with the various documentaries on the religious community.

Gloriavale was a frequent conversation topic around the meal table, he said.

It was "quite exciting for the kids" as it was the only way for them to see their childhood friends - the Ben Canaan family have been "cut off and seen as enemies".

At Gloriavale, he was told all the people in the outside were selfish and wouldn't help them, but his family had been welcomed and supported into the community, Ben Canaan said.

"There's a lot of rubbish amongst the truth," he said.

Ben Canaan was disappointed there were so many sensationalised accounts of Gloriavale.

Good and bad things and people existed in all communities, but the bad seemed to be the focus of many of the Gloriavale documentaries and media coverage.

He felt the documentary Gloriavale: A Woman's Place, which aired in late July, "accurately portrayed" parts of the community, but did not ask the hard questions, he said.

He was disappointed the past sexual abuse allegations were not discussed.

Gloriavale leader Hopeful Christian, formerly known as Neville Cooper, was convicted of indecent assault in the mid 1990s but "99 per cent of Gloriavale members believe those things never happened".

Child abuse was not condoned in Gloriavale at all, but he was disappointed the documentary did not ask questions about why the community was not informed.

"If the people of Gloriavale knew the truth about the allegations, the place would fall apart," Ben Canaan said.

The leaders held up on a pedestal with high regard "would fall to pieces".

"There were other sides of life that weren't touched".

However, he was concerned the community had been portrayed incorrectly about abuse.

"The media makes it sound like that's happening all the time. It's not."

A lot of the members were happy with life, but he knew of people "who aren't happy there, too".

However, this perspective would not come out as people who were unhappy would not be interviewed, he said.

"Everything done is put past the leaders for approval."

But there were a lot of good things in the community, he said.

"Gloriavale is a very stress-free life. Everything is well organised and everyone looks after each other. It's a happy place."

The support of the

When the family arrived in Timaru, they were given a place to live, offers of work and plenty of support from South Canterbury residents.

"When we left, all we brought was the clothes on our backs and a few blankets and pillows."

Members of the Marchwiel Baptist Church and the wider church community helped the family, who also received offers of accommodation, furniture, clothing and work after their story was made public on Facebook.

Within weeks they had moved out to near Pleasant Point as Ben Canaan found work as a milk contractor.

He was grateful for the support he received, particularly from his church, which he did not want to name.

It felt, he said, as if they instantly had lots of friends.

Dove Love's Brother

Ben Canaan is friends with Jeremy, who allegedly called ZM's Fletch, Vaughan and Megan claiming his sister, Gloriavale member Dove Love, did not want to marry her husband.

A recent documentary followed the 22-year-old's daily life and the process of her engagement and wedding.

Jeremy claimed he had lived in the community all his life, but was asked to leave after he began to question the leaders.

"When I listened to the interview, it sounded like an off hand-comment which the media zoomed into and made a big deal out of," Ben Canaan said.

"She seemed pretty happy in the documentary."

Some women were not happy when the proposition was put to them, but they were taught it is God's will and they must submit and obey, he said.

Leaving Gloridavale

Two days after the Ben Canaan family decided to leave, they were gone.

"In a way, we left out of fear."

They left under the cover of darkness, after making contact with two former Gloriavale members using the mobile phone he was given for work.

The dairy farm he ran was 18 kilometres away from the main commune, and it was from there the Ben Canaan family left their life at Gloriavale behind.

After renting a van, the two former Gloriavale members picked them up from the farm and drove straight for Timaru.

He had discussed leaving with his wife and his eldest children when he realised they could be separated by the Gloriavale leaders, he said.

Ben Canaan had been disagreeing more and more with the leaders before they left.

He realised he would be separated from his family and taken to a house while his family was told lies about him, he said.

If they did not leave, his family would have been turned against him, Ben Canaan said.

It affected them a lot to hear the leaders talk about the former members and what they believed, and then speaking to the two men to hear their side, he said.

"I found out most of what they were saying was nonsense."

When they left, Ben Canaan had hoped Gloriavale might offer them some assistance, but they were given nothing.

People were told they were free to leave and no one was held against their will, but there was a lot of pressure to stay, he said.

The leaders said with such big families they financially "couldn't survive".

"I think it's designed to keep people there," Ben Canaan said.

He knew of teenagers who had left, been given nothing and dropped off by the side of the road, he said.

"No job, no place to stay."

The leaders were "a bit out of touch with reality" on the costs of accommodation and food, he said.

Gong back

In difficult times, Ben Canaan has considered what it would be like to return: "It's a carefree, easy going lifestyle compared to what I'm living now."

"There have been times when we've doubted our decision, when things got very high stress," Ben Canaan said.

"But I've always thought we have done the right thing."

*comments are closed

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.


Educational DVDs and Videos