Moving on from Gloriavale

Mar 31, 2017

Gloriavale Christian Community claims to be a haven where like-minded individuals can practice their faith and enjoy a wholesome lifestyle free from the pressures of the modern world. The community is self-sufficient, preparing their food onsite and supporting themselves by means of several businesses which over the years have included dairy, deer and sheep farms, an air charter service and an export company specialising in sphagnum moss products.

However, in recent years dozens of members have fled the famously private community, telling stories of manipulative leadership, brainwashing and abuse. This is the story of mother and daughter Roimata Tarawa and Leah Menage,
who met kaituhi Anna Brankin to share their experiences.

“There’s a saying I love,” says Leah Menage. “‘Life is for living, so get a straw and suck it dry.’ To me that means seize every opportunity that you can and never give up.”

This message is particularly poignant for Leah, who grew up believing that she was not entitled to many of the opportunities that most of us take for granted – simple things like holding a driver’s licence, opening a bank account, and choosing who to marry. She spent her childhood in the community that we now know as Gloriavale Christian Community. “I never knew how restrictive it was, because it was just my life. I didn’t know anything else until I left,” says Leah. “A woman’s role was to get married and have children. I never thought about studying or having a career because it just wasn’t an option there.”

Gloriavale Christian Community was started in 1969 by well-known Australian evangelist Neville Cooper (now known as Hopeful Christian), and was originally located near the small Canterbury town of Cust where it was called Springbank Christian Community. In the early 1990s the community brought land at Haupiri near Greymouth and they are still based there today.

So how did Leah come to grow up in such a place? The answer lies with her mother, Nga Honore Roimata Tarawa, known to her whānau and friends as Onrie or Roimata. The widowed mother of six became involved with the community in 1972, when it was in its infancy at Springbank.

Like many others, Roimata joined Springbank Christian Community because of her admiration for Neville’s religious convictions as well as the simple, wholesome lifestyle he promoted. According to Roimata, for many years the community really was just a place for like-minded people to share their faith and enjoy the communal lifestyle.

“In the beginning it was really good,” she says firmly. “The children loved it because there were so many other children for them to play with. And we learnt a lot. Every woman who comes away from that community knows how to do all sorts of things. They could grow vegetables, they could sew, they could make bread, butter, yoghurt, ice-cream.”

Whānau performing at Roimata’s 80th birthday.

After a few years, Roimata and her four youngest children moved into what was called “full community” at Springbank. They lived in purpose-built accommodation, eating their meals in a shared dining hall and sharing a bedroom in one of the accommodation blocks. To begin with, Roimata was content. “I was a widow, you see,” she says. “It had been a real struggle for me, and when I went into the community it wasn’t a struggle anymore. My children were looked after, they were fed, they were clothed, they were able to go to school and get an education.”

However, Leah says that her first memories of oppression coincide with living in the community full-time. She was 11 years old, and remembers going to school to learn domestic skills like sewing and cooking, while the boys were being pushed into career paths that would benefit the community. For the first time, she realised that they would not be able to choose what to do with their lives.

Things came to a head when Leah was 15, and Neville Cooper discovered she was in a secret relationship with one of his sons. Neville insisted that the young couple must marry, but as Leah was so young he needed her mother to agree to the marriage. Roimata tried to object. “You don’t just marry the first person you like when you’re that age,” she says. “I told Neville it was just puppy love, and that I wouldn’t sign the papers. But then I was threatened with a men’s meeting.”

Roimata had attended a men’s meeting before, so she knew exactly what this meant. She would be called into a meeting room and made to sit facing all of the community’s senior men. They would take turns to outline her wrongdoings, explaining how sinful and wicked she was. They would continue to do this until she repented, lecturing her for hours if necessary.

“We didn’t know how to live in the world, and we were completely cut off from our families as soon as we left. We weren’t allowed any contact at all … My life was such a mess. I was confused about where I should be. I didn’t want to go back to the community but I didn’t know how to live outside of it.”
Leah Menage

Roimata did not want to go through that experience, especially when Leah herself had no objection to the marriage. “I thought I was in love,” she says. “But I was fifteen years old, and he was sixteen. How were we supposed to know what we wanted?”

Regardless, in the face of Neville’s threats and Leah’s willingness, Roimata signed the papers permitting the young couple to marry.

Shortly after their marriage, Leah and her husband grew dissatisfied with the restrictions they faced in the community. Leaving was strictly prohibited, so they snuck away in the middle of the night. But, as Leah tells it, after the structure of the community they struggled
to adjust to the freedoms of the outside world. “We didn’t know how to live in the world, and we were completely cut off from our families as soon as we left. We weren’t allowed any contact at all.”

The teens were exposed to influences like alcohol and drugs for the first time, and as Leah says, “We were told that if we left the community we would go to hell, and if you’re already going to hell you might as well enjoy yourself along the way.”

Even though Leah had escaped the community, she was struggling to shake off the oppression she had experienced there. With no parents to guide them, the young couple struggled to integrate into society and this eventually took a toll on their marriage. When Leah fell pregnant and gave birth to their son she found herself a single mother at the age of 18.

“That was a really tough time in my life, but my son Kane is the best thing that happened out of it,” says Leah. “My life was such a mess. I was confused about where I should be. I didn’t want to go back to the community but I didn’t know how to live outside of it. And
I missed my mum.”

Meanwhile, Roimata was growing increasingly unhappy about life within the community as the restrictions became more apparent. “We weren’t allowed to have phone calls so we snuck around and did everything on the sly,” she says. “And that’s when I started thinking,
I need to leave. If I can’t be free to use the phone, I’ve got to leave.”

But it wasn’t that straightforward. Two of Roimata’s children were still living in the community, married and with children of their own. They weren’t ready to leave and Roimata was torn. If she stayed, she would never be reunited with her whānau outside the community. If she left, she would have to say goodbye to those who chose to remain.

This decision weighed on her mind for three years as she worked up the courage to leave, but it was when she received word of Leah’s troubles that she finally resolved to go. She made arrangements with a friend on the outside, and one day after 20 years in the community she simply walked out and was picked up on the roadside.

“I’m passionate about helping people succeed. I changed my life for the better and now I want to support others to do the same.”
Leah Menage

“I was so pleased to be out,” she says. “It was getting to that place where everything was getting out of control, and it was just horrible and nasty.”

For Leah, her mother’s escape from the community was exactly what she needed. “When she came back into my life, everything just came together. She was there to look after my son, she was there for everything that I needed. Slowly I built my life up with her support.”

Over 20 years later, Leah is happily married to Roger and has just graduated from Laidlaw College with a Bachelor in Counselling. She is now working in Christchurch at Te Puna Oranga, a kaupapa Māori whānau service. “I’m passionate about helping people succeed,” she says. “I changed my life for the better and now I want to support others to do the same.”

When Leah began to find her feet, Roimata turned her focus to the whānau she had left behind, and eight years ago she made the difficult decision to return to the community. “I did not go back for the purpose of getting them to leave,” she says. “But things were so bad that when I spoke to them about my life outside, they started to think for themselves.”

Her son and daughter-in-law made the decision to leave with their nine children, and after two years Roimata followed them. It is now six years since she left the community for a second time, and just over a year ago her remaining daughter also left with her family.

In November 2016, Roimata celebrated her 80th birthday and was overjoyed that all six of her children were able to attend, as well as her 36 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. “It’s a dream come true to have my family together,” says the proud matriarch. “They’re all doing so well, they all have good jobs or are studying. And I tell everybody that they’re the best looking children in the world.”

For Leah, everything comes back to her close-knit family and the special bond she feels with her mother. Even today, the mother and daughter live just 10 minutes apart and are as inseparable as ever. “At the end of the day it was that whānau support that got me through,” says Leah. “It was having a matriarch like Mum at the centre of our whānau, with that wairuatanga wrapped around us all.”