Life on the outside: One man's goal to save the souls stuck in Gloriavale

Weekend Life 06/05/2018
Photo credit: gloriavale.org.nz

There is a battle going on night after night for the souls of the people of Gloriavale.

Earlier this week, a Newshub exclusive investigation revealed religious groups are undertaking night-time raids to drop off material presenting an alternative view of God.

A group named the ‘Night Raiders’ is behind it, attempting to free people from inside the community and to break the so-called ‘cult’.

And it worked - with John Ready, who has just got out of Gloriavale.

"I always resist the words I left. I always say I was thrown out," Mr Ready told Newshub.

"Thrown out", because his view of God changed - thanks to pamphlets left by the night raiders.

The man leading the raids is James Ben Canaan, an ex-Gloriavale member. 

He spoke with Trudi Nelson on RadioLIVE and gave an insight into life inside Gloriavale and how he’s trying to free people stuck inside the religious sect.

Growing up in Gloriavale

"Pretty cruisy. No worries, compared to the outside world," Mr Ben Canaan said.

"I look back on it as being a really great lifestyle. As a child, friends and family [were] around you all the time. Everything was provided for you.

"I had a really happy childhood. I thought it was great."

Mr Ben Canaan comes from a large family and is one of thirteen children. Just over half of them are still in Gloriavale.

"Some of them have left over the years as well.

"But I've got a very large part of my family, a lot of cousins, nephews and nieces, still in Gloriavale," he said.

Leaving the sect

Asked why he decided to leave Gloriavale, Mr Ben Canaan said "I could take an hour to answer that question.

He says despite removing himself from the community in 2015, he is still a Christian.

"The Bible teaches us that we are all sinners and God's given us a law to obey and everyone's broken that law," Mr Canaan said. "God sent his son to pay the penalty for the sin.

"Gloriavale believes that but then they've added a lot of laws to God's law, so there's a whole lot of added on things about the way you dress, not having your top button undone, you're not allowed your sleeves rolled up, the food you eat... a whole lot of these different rules that they've added in that are what I call are extra-biblical.

Mr Ben Canaan told Weekend Life that the leaders of Gloriavale hold a "huge power" over people's minds.

And the people, although they don't understand it, live in a huge fear of the leaders.

"I heard preaching from an American preacher and it sort of opened my eyes to a lot of things in Gloriavale that weren't right. I sort of started to disagree with a lot of things that were being taught.

"I guess in the end, out of fear, we left [the community] because we knew the potential of what could happen to our family, and what has now happened to John's family, and it's happened to others in the past when they've disagreed with the leaders.

He says if someone questions or challenges the leaders' decisions it can often have serious consequences.

"The husband has been put out and separated from the family, and the family is destroyed.

"My wife and I, and our older children discussed it and decided that there was no way we were going to have that happen so we decided to leave.

Mr Ben Canaan told Trudi Nelson, he and his family left in the dead of night.

"Looking back I may not have done it the same way again. But at the time we felt we didn't want anyone to know because of the pressure that they can put on your children and my wife. 

"We decided that was the best way to do it," he said.

The problems with Gloriavale

"The amount of control that the leaders have, I think, is particularly wrong."

Mr Ben Canaan noted that people living in the community hold the leaders up "in such high esteem".

"And will not even question some of the decisions that are made.

"To give an example of that, just recently I heard of a woman inside Gloriavale that said if the leaders gave her [a declaration of commitment document], she would sign it without even reading it because she trusts them.

"And if they told her to stand on her head for twelve hours she would do that because she trusts them, and she knows that they're called by God.

"To me, that's a very dangerous thing. There's no safety there," he said. "You shouldn't trust anyone with that amount of trust."

Mr Ben Canaan gave another example of a close friend who had some disagreements with the leaders and was separated from his family.

"He's never given a voice of his own to explain himself to the people. He's put aside, and the leaders tell the story to the people.

"And some of the things I heard them say about him I knew weren't true. But he's got no way to defend himself. That made me pretty unhappy."

Living with a convict

"Probably one of the major things that sort of made me lose my trust in the leaders was with the court case that went on like twenty odd years ago with the main founder of Gloriavale. 

He is talking about Gloriavale founder Neville Cooper, who goes by the name Hopeful Christian, and was convicted of sex abuse charges in 1995. 

Mr Cooper was sentenced to five years in prison for three counts of indecent assault but was released on parole in November 1996, serving less than two years of his original sentence.

"As a teenager growing up there I was told that he hadn't done anything wrong and he was just being persecuted for his faith. 

"Years later it sort of came across to us that he'd done some things that weren't wise but he had good motives and people had just twisted it," he told RadioLIVE. "But when I found out some of the things that had been done, I just lost trust in him."

"I was like you lied to me all those years so how can I trust anything you say.

The Night Raiders

Mr Ben Canaan is on a mission to save the souls of Gloriavale. 

"To change their heart and their minds, and to see what I believe is the truth about God, I feel is the only way that is going to bring change. And we saw that happen to John."

John Ready was shunned by Gloriavale after being exposed to materials presenting an alternative view of God. He is the latest member to be "thrown out" of the Christian community.

Asked about his relationship with John Ready, Mr Ben Canaan said the pair were close.

"I don't know if John would agree but from my perspective, he was one of my best friends at Gloriavale.

"After we were both married, his family and our family were quite close. We used to go out together quite a lot," he said.

Mr Ben Canaan says Mr Ready would be feeling "terrible" that his family has been left behind in the sect.

"I know it's a horrible thing for him and it was a terrible decision he had to make. But then he felt like it was the only decision he could make.

"He was hoping he would get his wife and children on board with him but he got kicked out before that happened.

Mr Ben Canaan told RadioLIVE he hopes "desperately" that Mr Ready will be reunited with his family.

"I know that his wife really loves him and his kids, and she's torn between the two. She believes it's right to be with her husband but then she believes that she has to stay in Gloriavale and the two aren't going to work."

Those involved with the night raids say they have helped 75 people leave over the past five years.

Newshub made several requests for an interview with Gloriavale's leaders - but they declined.

Helpful Christian said the raiders weren't welcome.

"If you want to come on you go through the leaders, and the leaders will sort out what we need to be reading and things like that," Mr Christian told Newshub.

Listen to the full interview with James Ben Canaan above.

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