Janet McIntyreby Sarah Barnett
North Canterbury religious sect Gloriavale was last in the news when its leader, Hopeful Christian, was convicted of sexual abuse in the 1990s. Now, the isolated rural community numbers around 400 (a quarter of whom are related to Christian) and runs multi-million-dollar businesses, but it still limits contact with the outside world. TVNZ's Sunday team were the first journalists to be invited to Gloriavale, where Janet McIntyre had the opportunity to talk to residents, grill Christian and witness Angel and Josiah's wedding - complete with an intermission in which the marriage was consummated.
What was it like being there? It was a big shock to the system to walk into it; it was like dropping in on another planet. You have this sense that you're doing it almost for the first time - few people have gone in and actually seen how it works. So it wasn't scary, but it was disconcerting. And you didn't really feel welcome. We felt the eyes of suspicion on us totally.
And yet they seemed to be open about answering your questions - with the exception of Hopeful Christian. They were really forthright about what they think - I think they were told to co-operate - and they just told it the way they saw it. It was remarkable, really, the honesty. It was almost self-righteousness. It was unusual for teenage girls to talk to me with that kind of authority, and almost question my belief system. I wouldn't say I was offended; I was disconcerted by it. I didn't really feel that I needed to justify myself to them - my Christianity or otherwise. But I was curious about why they believed they could so quickly tell just by looking at me that, in their opinion, I wasn't a Christian simply by the fact that I wasn't wearing a headscarf and wore makeup.
Christian's third wife was 17 when he married her in his sixties. You had girls talking about becoming adults at 10, wanting families of 13 or more, but letting the older girls marry first as there's currently a gender imbalance. Angel was 22 and Josiah was 18 - is that the usual age? There have been younger marriages in the past. I understand that kids as young as 14 have been married, but I don't think it happens so much now, especially with that issue they've got, with a surplus of virgins. The marriages are happening at an older age.
How did they actually meet? They barely knew each other, and then they're engaged. They sort of know each other in a sisterly-brotherly sense. But the process is, the boy goes to the father, the father then goes to the church, to the elders. They all pray pray pray, and then suddenly this name arrives, and so the family goes back to the son and then the son goes to the girl. In this case he took her down to the river and proposed.
Would she think of saying no? They say that the girl can refuse but they couldn't tell me when and if that had ever happened. The whole thing is if you refuse that person, then you're actually refusing God's choice for you. So there's no room to refuse, really.
Hopeful Christian dodged your question about brainwashing. Did you feel that you were in the presence of people who had been brainwashed? No doubt about it. No doubt about it. Especially the young ones. And that was the part that really was concerning - the way they are indoctrinated from birth. There's one view of the world presented. I don't even know if they talk about evolution - I don't think it's part of their curriculum. And they just know nothing else, so there's no discussion, there's no conflict, there's no democracy. You can't make decisions for yourself and I think that while they appear happy in that lifestyle, it's devastating to think they'll never experience art galleries, university. I said to those girls, "What if someone wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or something like that?" And they just looked at me absolutely blankly. Finally, one girl said to me, "There's no one here who would ever want to be that." When you think about it, there must be intellect there, but [the lifestyle] completely stunts them.
Is there anything else you really wanted to get into the item? One thing we would have liked to include was the worship. It was such an amazing scene. A lot of it was testifying, singing and dancing. And then there was an anointing to heal anyone who was ill, and then they would sing and finish in tongues - the whole hall erupted in tongues. Then they had this dance of the virgins. So all the unmarried young women held hands and danced round the hall. And the meaning of that, well ...
It sounds like a parade. Yeah, these are the young virgins available.
How does it compare with other stories you've done? It's one of a kind, really. When you jump into a story that's not really been trodden on, you sometimes have that sense of the great things journalism can be: you know you're inside a secret and you're going to be able to reveal it. Sometimes you get that little thrill. The feeling that I had inside there, especially in the early stage, was like being in Kandahar [Afghanistan]. When you sense that the people ... they stare at you with these empty eyes, with almost contempt, and it felt like that. In every other way, it was quite unique.
"Inside Gloriavale" is available to view at http://tvnz.co.nz, keyword "Sunday".
SUNDAY, TV1, Sunday, 7.30pm
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