Travel

Inside New Zealand's Reclusive, Anti-Technology Christian Community

For the most part, the public has relied on accounts of ex-Gloriavale members to understand daily life within the community, but photographer Cam McLaren was invited into the community and gave VICE an exclusive preview of what he saw.

by Cam McLaren, Words by Beatrice Hazlehurst
Oct 22 2016, 2:35pm

Nestled deep in the mountains on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, Gloriavale is a Christian group styled along the lines of America's Amish community. Residents of Gloriavale wear clothes resembling those found in the 19th century. They also use little technology or electricity.

Since its establishment in 1969, founder Neville Cooper (who now goes by Hopeful Christian) has kept the community cut-off from the outside world. With the number of residents totaling close to 600, Gloriavale is entirely self-sufficient with no individual allowed anything of his or her own. It's also common for the number of children in each family to hit double digits, most becoming parents in their teens.

Gloriavale has long been a subject of public fascination. Allegations of sexual abuse, tax evasion, education deficits, and deaths have made the Christian community a permanent fixture in the New Zealand media—and yet its inner workings remain largely a mystery.

This means, for the most part, the public has relied on accounts of ex-Gloriavale members to understand daily life within the community. However, photographer Cam McLaren was invited into the community and gave VICE an exclusive preview of what he saw.

VICE: Tell me a little bit about how your Gloriavale project came to fruition. They're notoriously reclusive, how did you get access?
Cam McLaren: I heard about the community around four years ago and found it really intriguing, but it wasn't until 2015 when when I decided to get in touch with them to discuss the idea of visiting. We basically went through a pretty big process of back-and-forth conversations, although it felt more like they were interviewing me. Eventually they welcomed me in, but it was only decided that I could take pictures when I had arrived and met with Gloriavale's leader, Hopeful Christian.

What was Hopeful Christian like in person? Did he lay out what was expected of you?
He's quite a proud man. People don't treat him like a god, but they respect him like an inventor, a leader, and a source of inspiration. Although I did wonder if this sense of respect was grown through Chinese whispers [the children's game Telephone] over time.

Gloriavale has been embroiled in multiple scandals. Having seen their lifestyle firsthand, do you think they're misunderstood?
I understand that there are huge social concerns around the community, especially around the safety of children, but the whole time I was a guest they treated me with total respect. I found that the children were really adored, and they were treated very much like they were the future of the community. I'm sure that Gloriavale has its problems and people with problems... but that's the same as everywhere else. Who doesn't have issues?

Was there anything you found particularly surprising about the way they live?
I was very surprised by the extent of the community's self sufficiency. At the time of my visit, there were around 600 residents. That's a lot of mouths to feed. I was told due to their diets and lifestyles that the residents rarely need to leave the community to get medical treatment. Outside doctors regularly visit as well as dentists and other specialties that the community don't have within their ranks.

Gloriavale has assets of $30 million. Were there obvious displays of wealth in the community?
The land the community sits on is vast and would be worth a small fortune itself, but most of the buildings were pretty old and in need of upgrading. There certainly were not any displays of wealth. Everyone presents themselves very humbly.

Where did you sleep?
I was shown to this room that was filled with flowers, and there was a pink dress lying on the bed. There was an overwhelming sense of celebration. It turned out that it was in preparation for a new family who would be moving in shortly after I left, and the dress was going to be worn by the new bride.

Were there any restrictions on who you could talk to?
I was allowed to speak with anyone, but for much of the time, I was moving around the community alone. It's like any place: Some people want to discuss the world, some don't, but the people of Gloriavale come from a massively diverse background. Many were highly educated and had been really successful outside the community before they entered.

Did going make you reevaluate the way you live in the outside world? Is there anything you've changed since?
Yeah. After I left, I started really considering my place in society and how I was going to progress. Did I want to start my own family? Everything just became more clear after my visit. The simplicity of life in the community would make anyone think about their own lifestyle.

McLaren's book Gloriavale will be released by Etcht on November 1. It'll be available directly from his website and select book retailers internationally.