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Former Gloriavale member returns by night to help others leave

Mothers and children from the West Coast Christian community Gloriavale. Photo: TVNZ screenshot.

A former Gloriavale member has admitted he travels back to the West Coast community under the cover of darkness to try and provide information on life outside the Christian group.

James Harrison told First Up he wants those still living in the isolated community to know people can be successful on the outside.  

He, his wife and their 12 children fled Gloriavale in March 2015, with just the clothes on their backs, some blankets, a sewing machine and some farm clothes.

On arrival in Timaru they discovered that between them they had just $40 in their bank accounts – James and his wife had $5 each, while three of their older children had $10 each.

That’s despite him having worked up to 60-hours a week on Gloriavale’s dairy farm.

"They tell you that the benefit of being in the community [is that] the schooling’s free, you don’t pay for any of your food or your vehicle costs ... you don’t pay for anything. But you’re not paid either."

James says realising how little money they had was scary, but admits they chose not to notify the leaders of their plans, and that had they done so, they may have been offered some money.

"I had two friends that left a year or two before that, and they had four children at the time they left, and they were given $1000 by Gloriavale.

"We weighed up the risk, as we knew if we went to the leaders and said we wanted to leave, there would be meetings and there would be harassing, and people trying to talk you out of it.

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"Our teenage daughters didn’t want to be called into any meetings, because they use a lot of emotion and manipulation and we were worried about our family getting broken up, which we’ve seen happen before and quite a few times since.

"So, we decided, we’re a big family, they might give us $3000, but it wasn’t worth the risk of the emotional strain they put you through and possibly even splitting our family up and convincing some of them to stay at Gloriavale."

When they left, the family were helped by Liz and Graham Gregory from Timaru. The Gregorys camped in a tent on their lawn so the 14 family members could stay inside the house.

Liz also helped James and his wife book appointments with WINZ, IRD and the bank, and helped James find work.

"It wasn’t just the four weeks we were there, it’s been going on for years since. She’s been so much help. Any questions we have, she’s always there to help. She’s a very efficient, outgoing woman and she can move mountains and make things happen."

That support was crucial in getting him and his family through, as James says there were periods of doubt as they adjusted to life outside Gloriavale.

"The women find it a lot harder than the men do. I think part of that is that the men at Gloriavale they’re working a job, and then they come out here and they get a job and they’re sort of keeping themselves busy. Where it’s a much bigger lifestyle change for a woman.

"When she’s at Gloriavale she’s been working in the kitchen or in the laundry with all the other ladies and then suddenly she’s at home by herself a lot of the time.

"They probably have more time to think and mull things over ... and losing all their friends and family is a lot harder for the women than it probably is for the men."

Four and half years on, James says they’re enjoying life on the outside and watching their family flourish.

"Seeing our teenagers grow up and make decisions for themselves. I think they’re maturing a lot quicker than they did at Gloriavale.

"The younger children that haven’t grown up at Gloriavale, they interact with people a lot better ... they’re a lot more polite and they’re not scared of people. All the kids at Gloriavale are taught to fear outside people and they just go into their shell when anyone from outside comes along. It’s been good for us to see our younger children and the way they react and interact so well with other people."

In the last year more than 30 people have left Gloriavale. James says they’ve heard the leaders are getting stricter since Hopeful Christian, who founded the community, died last year.

He reckons more information is getting into the community about the kind of life they could live on the outside.

"At Gloriavale the leaders very much control the information that comes into the community, you only hear what they want you to hear, and you’re taught all your life there is no way you could survive on the outside with a big family, or even without a big family ... the financial stresses are too hard and you’ve got it so wonderful at Gloriavale, why would you want to go anywhere else?

"I think people are starting to see that these things aren’t true, and that people are leaving and succeeding and keeping their faith."

It’s a message James is trying to get into the community.

He says he’s made day time visits a few times and has met people from Gloriavale when they’ve been outside the community.

"It’s quite funny," he says, "if you meet people in Greymouth or around the West Coast, they’ll talk to you no problem at all. They’re fine. But if you meet the same people at Gloriavale, they’ll just look away, won’t talk to you, and it’s simply because they’re scared to talk to you, because they’re scared of being seen and reported to the leaders.

James also goes back at night to meet people, drop of tracks and information. He says it’s not easy; "it’s extremely difficult and it seems like most of the time you’re beating your head against a wall, but occasionally you get to meet people, and occasionally the stuff you leave there gets read and it slowly breaks down barriers."

When asked what it’s like going back, James says it has become easier; “in the earlier years after you leave there’s still a real fear of the leaders there and you’re scared of confrontation. But now I’m not too worried who I meet and I’ll stand my ground and I’m not really scared of them."

A spokesperson from Gloriavale declined to be interviewed but said members of the community are free to come and go as they please.

When asked why so many people choose to leave under the cover of darkness, the spokesperson said it was probably out of shame.

Listen to a further interview with James here.

This article was first published on Radio NZ.