Disney on rice: at Gloriavale’s public variety show

It’s free, four hours long and promises ‘A World of Adventure and Discovery’. But does the Gloriavale concert present a true reflection of the fundamentalist group? Anke Richter heads along.

Fog hovers over Lake Haupiri while the sun sets behind dense West Coast bush. A yellow sign at the turnoff from the empty road says Concert. That’s all. The only indication that I’ve entered the grounds of Gloriavale is the slow car in front of me because the driver is wearing a headscarf and blue dress. Hang on, a woman at the wheel? That must be as rare out here as in Saudi Arabia.

The white buildings look familiar from the TV documentary series, so it feels a bit like driving on to a movie set. Or like a foreign country. I count 24 prams in front of one of the hostels. Next to the car park is the new school and kids’ playground. Wooden military jeeps and a replica second world war cannon are parked between the trikes and slides. War toys are not what I would expect from radical Christians either. But those are only props, next to the hall where the concert is taking place. Every two years, the isolated South Island community puts on their famous show for free as a gift to the wider world. It runs over a month, sometimes with two events per day, and an overall audience of around 6000. Everyone gets fed a three-course meal. Some guests come from as far as overseas, but most from Greymouth or Christchurch. Some locals have told me they boycott what they believe to be cult propaganda: an extravagant effort to impress gullible outsiders and drown out critical voices.

The old man at the entrance thanks me for wearing a long skirt. His name is Gideon and he’s been a Cooperite for 48 years. Because most of the shows are sold out this winter, I mention that I’m lucky to have a ticket. He corrects me: “Not lucky – you are blessed!” My modest dress must be an invitation for more religious mansplaining. “What leads to sin?”, he asks me as if I were a school girl. “In one word!” “Uh… mistakes?” Is this an entry quiz? “Close. Starts with ‘D’!” The devil? Wrong again. “Disobedience”, says Gideon, beaming and nodding. He carries on with his friendly god-bothering while I browse the church brochures and comic strip tales on a rack (“Poor Little Lamb”, “Earnest for the Lord”.) Then I’m ushered in. No phones are allowed.

The dining hall has been transformed into a kind of 1950s Disneyland with elevated rows of candle-lit tabless, theme-park-like castle walls and murals. My place has a bread roll, chess figures as salt and pepper shakers and Cheezles in a toy truck. The theme of the night is “Musical Museum – A World of Adventure and Discovery”. Surely, though, adventures and discoveries are not what the repressive world of Gloriavale normally stands for, where knowledge is withheld and every aspect of life controlled?

Our young waiter’s name is Zealous. He serves us tomato soup while a large choir enters the stage. Some of the older girls have hair down to their knees. Rows and rows of tiny kids in blue come on, praising the lord. No one misses a note. Howard Temple takes the microphone to welcome us. Together with Fervent Stedfast, the 75-year old American has been at the helm of Gloriavale since founder Hopeful Christian died in May. After some housekeeping, we get a 10-minute run-down about immorality, King Solomon and not denying one another the spousal body. Then Temple introduces “a man with a vision” who has left “an outstanding example … in honour of Hopeful Christian – tonight is for you!”

Christian, aka Neville Cooper, appears on a screen and talks to us. For another 10 minutes, we watch a biopic of the late preacher: how he travelled the world, built a community, looked after his flock. Astonishing fun fact: God told him first about Israel becoming a nation in 1948 – two months before Ben Gurion declared this to the world. No mention of Christian/Cooper’s time in prison for indecent assault, but instead photos of his funeral while sweet voices sing, “May all who come behind us find us faithful.” No tears in the audience, as far as I can see.

I’m preparing myself for an excruciating evangelical marathon. More of “Poor Little Lamb” and the blood of sinners, like in the comic books outside? Nope. The curtain opens to pure fairy tale magic – a richly decorated musical themed around different cultures and eras. The first act, “All God’s Creatures”, kicks off with a fast-paced zoo parade of military precision – Disney on steroids. No Jesus in sight. Furry animals dance to catchy tunes, including a song from the animated film Moana. Cute little penguins waddle along. There’s even a life-size horse. The costumes are outstanding. The props are of Weta studio standard (rumour has it that the Wellington company gave them a hand). A big burly bear high-fives me on his way out. “So cool!” says a kid behind me. Everyone is clapping along and fired up. This is top-notch family entertainment.

Zealous serves us the second course: meat, rice, peas and croquettes with gravy or white sauce. During dinner, a magician entertains us with juggling balls and bad dad jokes. “My wife said to me: ‘You never take me anywhere expensive any more.’ I said: ‘Right, get your coat on. We’re going to the petrol station.’” It feels more sad than funny, given that Gloriavale couples can never go out on a dinner date and have zero money to spend on their own. Or cycle around a town at night-time to a café, as the next round of actors do.

The same double standard goes for Angel Benjamin, well-known from the TVNZ documentaries. While tiny cowboys hop out of Wild West coaches, the stunning music teacher sings a song, dressed as a Native American – with her long hair down and uncovered. Such frivolous exposure would normally be punished in Gloriavale. That’s not the only compromise for a good show. Legs and arms that appear bare in the ethnic costumes are actually covered in skin-coloured tight fabric.

During the intermission, I spot a group of female visitors in mini-skirts, heavy make-up and jewellery, smoking in the car park. Hard to tell whether they are just culturally insensitive or deliberately provocative. More surprises after the break: Dove Love, the real TV star of Gloriavale, is in one of the couples dancing on stage. They even kiss. Then a high-tech scene, with policemen and gangsters in LED costumes flashing away in the dark. And last, but not least, homemade ice-cream sundaes for dessert. It’s the best frozen dairy I’ve ever tasted. For a few minutes, I’m where Hopeful Christian claims he is. In heaven.

The special effects become even more spectacular. Computer-animated visuals make the stage look flooded while my face gets a dusting of water from the sprinklers above. A whale as big as a boat floats above our heads. Next minute, we’re transported to the battlefields of the Second World War. Our row of chairs gets a jolt from underneath while fake bombs go off. There’s quite some engineering going on here. And there’s Adolf Hitler, in another video sequence, for a bit of history. Then over to Egypt and the biblical story of Joseph.

I’ve now been watching for over four hours and am fluctuating between overload, rebellion and compassion. How many hard months have the self-described sheep of the community laboured away for this “sacrifice”? Their shifts are gruelling because they cook and serve in-between rehearsing and performing, late into the night. During concert season, some have to give up their one-room family apartments for visitors who stay overnight – and make them breakfast and a packed lunch.

The grand finale makes me think of North Korea. Lovely girls wave pastel flags in synchronized perfection while hand-animated sea birds, built by the crafty men of Gloriavale, meander through the hall. The performers appear like an army. No-one stands out individually. They don’t even get a curtain call at the end – too vain. Just Howard Temple, back at the mic, telling us to drive safely in the dark.

On the way out, each visitor can take a freshly baked loaf of bread and a piece of butter home. Prudent, the son of Fervent Stedfast, hangs around with a group of people to answer questions. This is the best place to raise kids, I hear. Women can still be women and don’t have to work like men folk. He sounds almost like a commander from Gilead. I have a question too, but cannot ask it there. If this was not a deeply patriarchal and misogynist place – where women can’t vote, teenagers are married off without a choice, birth control is forbidden, and sexual abuse too often ignored – but instead a fundamentalist community that practiced apartheid for religious reasons, would we accept their generous offering with the same enthusiasm or tolerance? Let’s imagine their chosen way of life was blatantly racist, rather than sexist. Would we still applaud them and gratefully tuck into their food?

There are no human rights protesters or picket signs as I drive out of Gloriavale. Just fog and bush.

Gloriavale has not responded to an invitation to comment.

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