Ex-Gloriavale members detail challenges, heartbreak of transitioning to the outside world

Looking a stranger in the eye and communicating, talking to a cashier at a store, and looking for a job are all part of growing up for most New Zealanders. 

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Hannah Harrison said she struggled with the most basic things while integrating back into society.

But for Hannah Harrison, leaving the Christian community of Gloriavale four and a half years ago, she was starting life in the outside world from scratch as an adult.

She has spoken about the challenges she faced transitioning into society outside the confinement of the segregated West Coast community - some as simple as going to the shops.

Ms Harrison was among several ex-members who had escaped Gloriavale who spoke at an event in Timaru last night. The event hoped to raise funds and build a community of support around those leaving the secluded community.

The leavers spoke about the fear and control they faced on the inside, especially for the women.

They also worried about the hurt it would cause those remaining, and the slander they could cop as a result of leaving, all while navigating a world they'd been told was horrible and evil. 

The number of families leaving has been increasing over the past year or two, and they've relied on communities to help support them in the transition.


For them, it's a new way of living, from things as simple as going to shops, banking and schooling.

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Ms Harrison left four and a half years ago. She described the upset and heartbreak she caused in her wake, but says she has no regrets leaving the "hostile" environment.

"For me it was really about differences in beliefs. I'd just come to a few things where I just didn't believe what they believed, and they push unity so much that it's really hard to stay there once you've come up with problems in what they believe," she told 1 NEWS.

Ms Harrison described learning about the world as a "cruel and horrible place where people would help you only for what they could get out of it". She said what she found when she got out of it was something very different.

She was faced with people willing to help and care, despite not even knowing her.

"It's been good," she said. "There's been the odd times where it hasn't been good, but for the most part it's been great and freedom is an amazing thing."

What she was told about the outside world "didn't match up at all" with reality, she explained. 

"I think that was a real eye-opener for me, seeing how different it was to what I had been told and taught as a child.

"It's incredibly humbling to see people that you hardly know offer you help and love and support, and it's just such an amazing feeling to know that it's just so so different to what you ever thought it would be.

"To come out and have to do everything new and everything different was really hard," she said, adding she wouldn't have got through it without the support from the community.

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Seven Sharp’s Michael Holland has the story of the pair who now live in Timaru. Source: Seven Sharp

Ms Harrison said she was shy at first and the thought of going out in the community to talk to someone, let alone get a job in the outside world, was "incredibly daunting".

"Even just going shopping and talking to the cashier was an incredibly hard thing to do for me when I first left."

"I am so happy I made the decision to leave and if I had the choice I would do it a lot sooner. It's something I definitely have no regrets about."


Another ex-member, James Harrison, spoke about similar feelings of freedom moving into the outside world.

Mr Harrison said there were a lot of factors that fed in to his departure from the community in March 2015.

He recalled feeling a lot of fear about his family being split up as they had seen it happen to others, as well as the "slander" and lies they knew would be spread about them after leaving.

"I'd grown disillusioned with their belief system, disillusioned with the hypocrisy and lying that was going on. They're the main factors.

"The place is really sick and a lot of them in there don't even know it."

When asked about what it was like on the outside, the biggest thing that came to mind was freedom, he said, adding it was "extremely suppressive" inside.

"Freedom to be able to live your life without fear of people looking over your shoulder and going to the leaders to tell on you if you're doing something you weren't supposed to do. Freedom to make decisions for yourself.

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"The scary thing is that a lot of people who are living there have got no idea how suppressive it is, and until you actually come away from it you don't realise the fear that you were living under and the control and the manipulation and everything that goes on."

Mr Harrison said he was consistently told how bad it was on the outside and how you couldn't live with a big family.

"Everyone has big families so you're scared to leave," he said. 

Families in Gloriavale can have upwards of 13 children as having a big family is something they preach.


People inside were also told they couldn't be a Christian on the outside, whereas inside was "basically heaven on earth", Mr Harrison recalled learning.

"The reality is the opposite. Sure, there's bad outside, but there's bad inside. I mean, there's good people and there's evil people wherever you are."

Upon leaving, emotional support from people to provide love, care and companionship was the biggest thing they received, he said. His family was also helped financially and guided through a new way of life they hadn't known of.

"For our family it was a tremendous leap of faith. We just had no idea what was going to happen, we just knew we couldn't live there anymore."

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Mr Harrison said Timaru has become a sort of base, hosting a lot of ex-Gloriavale members. He said the community understood their way of thinking and needs and cared for them until they became established or, for some, they move on to other areas.


The Gloriavale Leavers' Support Trust has been set up to help those who have left Gloriavale, and has been seeing an influx in especially larger families needing help.

That includes buying clothes to finding a new home. 

"We're noticing that more and more people are leaving and over the last six years we've had quite a lot to do with many of them," Trust founder Liz Gregory said.

Launching in Timaru last night, the trust will help them apply for grants and funding to continue their work helping needy families and individuals as they transition from Gloriavale.

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Ms Gregory said people leaving Gloriavale need everything from clothing, furniture, and other sorts of help. She said the Timaru community was "outstanding" and helping, which sometimes shocked leavers who had been told the outside world was not kind or generous, but instead was evil.

"When they come out here and experience kindness it's a real challenge to their whole belief system," Ms Gregory said.

"We find the community are fantastic at offering those things, but we also end up with needs for vehicles, they need money to be able to get school uniforms, school supplies, you need food in your cupboard, money for your house, your bond, your first few weeks rent.

"There's just a lot of things that a family will need."

Ms Gregory said they aren't the only group helping leavers, who she said were always appreciative and grateful for the help they receive from such groups.

She had noticed an escalation in people leaving in the past year or two, including three large families in the past three months. 

"It's been an increasing trend that the families are leaving. In the past you had a lot more individuals, late teenagers leaving.

"For families leaving it is a really big thing, and a big decision, and I know it'll have an impact on the community - they've got loved ones inside and family that aren't necessarily going to see them again for a long time."

About 200 people attended the launch last night, and Ms Gregory said there will be a similar event at a church in Christchurch on November 30.