A former member shares their experiences of attending the Wellington-based megachurch at the centre of serious emotional and physical abuse allegations.
Author’s note: This is not a bashing of religion or of those who go to church, including those who go to Arise. This is my personal experience with the church. It is written in the hope it will be cathartic not only to myself but also to those who have had similar experiences.
As a teen, I wanted to find the will to live. Religion had always interested me and church seemed an obvious choice. Depression was seen as demons. Acting on depression would lead you to hell. Easy enough to stay with the living.
I was desperate for a sense of belonging and I was vulnerable. I was painfully shy and often my words couldn’t even form in my brain, let alone hang in the air in the art of conversation. It’s hard not to feel shame about this time. This was back before I was medicated for anxiety and depression. My only school friends were, and are still to this day, Christian.
From the age of nine I was a self-made Christian in a family of non-believers. I started going to Arise in my late teens. A girl who I went to school with, let’s call her Sophia, brought me along. Sophia was sarcastic and manic pixie dream girl-esque with rough eyeliner, an obsession with High School Musical and had every Flight of the Conchords song memorised. She lived just down the road from me, had been at church her whole life and was shifting to Arise from one of our local smaller churches.
She fasted for 30 days after finding out an overweight man had suddenly become slender after fasting like Jesus. She also ran into her bedroom wall at 14, thinking her faith would allow her through like the story in the Bible. She spoke in tongues for the first time at Arise.
I remember being hesitant about the theatricality of Arise. Wellington’s biggest entertainment centre fully rigged with stage lights, dance crews and eloquent speakers – it was overwhelming. But with winning smiles and no sense of irony came the singsong chorus of “same message, different method” and I was hooked.
There were assigned greeters. To have people talk to me, remember me, tell me they wanted me back – man, it was a rush. I went from being alone to being surrounded by people who were impossibly happy, and I wanted in.
Live Laugh Love God and Country Road
You’re meant to wear your Sunday Best when you’re in the house of God. In Arise, the kids came from money, with their American style of perkiness, freakishly white sneakers and designer brands I had to Google to know were cool. “Sunday Best” is a different language when you’re living off fast-fashion bargains as a teen.
The spectacle felt worthy of God. In the Bible, he was given gold, offerings, sons – a lighting designer and full-scale theatre displays seemed appropriate. $400 dresses, only in praise of Him.
If you haven’t seen Arise’s marketing, it is sleek, slick and successful. When I attended there would be multiple photographers floating around during worship (where you sing songs about Jesus). The photographers were using their skills to serve the church, to encourage more people to join. So not only was worship quite a vulnerable time, it was also being documented without our express permission. It was only natural to see people try to worship “in the right way” – arms held out higher, smiles wider, singing louder.
When I was 20 I worked six days a week, with Sunday as my day of rest spent at church with hundreds of people. A “good Christian” would attend both the morning and night services like they weren’t iron deficient and didn’t have social anxiety.
Not only were tithes mentioned in both services and buckets passed around, the focus on giving was repeated many times throughout sermons. Don’t worry if you don’t have cash, enter your bank account deets and we’ll set up an AP, you should be giving 10% of your pay. Minimum. I read in David Farrier’s story that they now have ATMs in the foyer.
Sophia once told me to hold onto the paper outlining the church’s payment details so I could tithe later. That way I needn’t feel bad that I didn’t have cash on me, I could still give to the Lord. (This was when they were raising millions of dollars to build their campus in Petone). (She also lived at home until she bought a house at 26.)
When you go to both services you hang out with your small group split into boy/girl groups and go out to lunch. Everything was always split by gender. If a boy was driving you and some other girl home (a rare occurrence) you couldn’t be alone with him as it’s impure to be alone with a guy who wasn’t your husband. Sophia and I had to get out together, always.
In our small groups we were pressured to go to fancy cafes and spend money on overpriced food, which was nearly enough to send me into a full-on panic attack. I’d have the same conversations again and again. “Church was so good today!” someone would say. “So good” was almost used as a call and response – every time someone said “so good”, it was matched with a chorus of “so good!”
“Flip, the Lord was really talking to me today” … “God really spoke to me today, and I trust that He’s got a plan for me, and I’ll meet my future husband soon.” These conversations held two positions in my mind, and I would switch rapidly between the two. But then I also grew fond of the repetition. It was soothing, familiar, and simplified my thoughts. Plus, they did often find their future husbands at church.
To encourage people to go to church, Arise ran carpools. To be honest, this was a great idea and makes going somewhere very accessible. Coming in and out from the Hutt to the Wellington CBD with an enthusiastic carpool, I was at the whim of whoever was driving. If I was a “good” Christian, why would I need to go home early and not hang out with God’s children?
Arise does some good things for the community. When I was still at high school they gave free breakfasts to local schools and did a hot cross bun run at Easter. They have the money, and I did have a few experiences of it being put to good use. There’s a lot about my time at church that I’ve blocked out so the details are a little fuzzy, but some things couldn’t be clearer.
For context, I am a cis Pākehā woman. People from church assumed that I came from wealth, which was frustrating at the time. But now I see the privilege in that. I grew up in Pomare, next to Farmer Crescent before it became the landscape of Pleasantville. One Easter when they were delivering hot cross buns and the word of God, the women were told not to go down those streets, and the men put on their brave faces as they made their deliveries. Everyone made jokes about my suburb.
I went to Naenae College, and multiple white mothers who probably assumed I went to St Oran’s would make remarks like “I’d never send my child there, they’d get stabbed”, and “Oh gosh, how scary would it be to live out here”.
There was always a disconnect between classes. But they didn’t see it and I couldn’t articulate it.
Homo no go
In my first flat back in 2015, I lived with two lesbians and cried on my first night while I was in the shower. I was so ashamed. What if people from church found out that I lived with not one but two lesbians? What did God think?
At the same time I was doing a feminist Fringe show. I hadn’t had much experience with the idea of feminism then and was intrigued because as far as I knew it was all about equality. There was the focus of accepting people for who they are, and connecting as a community with open arms. Just like church. But then it wasn’t. I didn’t want anyone from church knowing that I was in the show and felt thick, poisonous shame. Being a feminist felt sinful.
Arise ran women’s conferences with sickly feminine marketing and catchy hashtags like #passionateforpassionate, and high scale ads. Girls in my small group bought new Karen Walker dresses for the conferences. At the last one I went to, the pastor repeated the same sermon from five years earlier. I could almost remember it verbatim: God was telling her that people would be giving big to the Lord tonight.
At the time I had just started dating a guy, we’ll call James, who was a trans man. I didn’t know what FTM meant and he “passed” (which means that he looked like he was born a male). There was a lot of inner turmoil because he was a man and trying to unpack God’s vision was a lot. All I knew was that I liked him and it was fine because we were man and woman, although not biologically. There was a big focus for this conference about marriage being between a man and a woman. A man’s a man and a woman’s a woman. The guest speaker spoke about being a loose ungodly woman until her Christian soon-to-be husband tamed her.
This whole experience made me really look into my sexuality. Being gay had always been wrong to me. But something about being a lesbian was seen as extra gross, and I don’t know why. I had learnt at a very young age that it wasn’t OK. I’ve read about people having to pray the gay away and I’m not surprised. It was something buried deep within me.
Being attracted to men was normal, and I felt great relief that I was. So when I started noticing women and finding them attractive, I just thought it was because we’re trained to look at women in a sexualised way. I was into men, I could get married and be “normal”. But then I realised it was more than that.
Before James and I broke up I stopped going to services as often. Community and love had become a lot stronger outside of church.
In my last service, Pastor John Cameron spoke about the branding of church. He referred to the church as a product to sell. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t tell if it was a slip or if anyone else noticed. But that’s when I left.
I knew how they talked about people when they left the church. The concern, the drafting of copied and pasted reasons to return. The spamming of messages to get them back on the right path. Sophia particularly enjoyed this. I cleared my Facebook friends and tried to breathe; Sophia was my last tie to high school. I grieved losing ties to my last chance at childhood friends and was jealous of anyone who had friends with any sort of history. I avoided the waterfront on Sundays, rushing whenever I went to the market, back when they took over the Michael Fowler Centre both morning and night.
Months later it was my friend’s 21st. Sophia was coming to the party and asked if we could get ready together. I hadn’t heard from her since I had left the church and reluctantly, yet hopefully, said yes.
I had developed a very close friendship with a girl since I had left church – let’s call her Ivy. We had an obsessive, intensive connection that blurred the lines of a traditional friendship. Sophia arrived at my flat and after multiple attempts to try and pluck my eyebrows, said: “I didn’t know you were a lesbian with Ivy Harris.” (She had never met Ivy.) I frantically said, a little too loudly, “No! No, I’m not a lesbian!”
She didn’t talk to me once we got to the 21st and I haven’t seen her since. It dawned on me that she had probably been sent by the church to make sure that I wasn’t a lesbian. That I wasn’t living a complete life of sin outside of church. Recently, conversion therapy was banned in New Zealand – pastor John Cameron urged the congregation to go against it.
Unlearning conservatism is an active journey. It took a whole year after leaving the church before I felt comfortable swearing, two years before I looked into medication for my anxiety, three years before I felt confident in my sexuality. Even in a long-term relationship with a woman, I still find myself on the odd occasion thinking something homophobic or small-minded. I don’t go to church any more, nor do I have faith. The only time I fall into prayer is when I see an ambulance speeding through a red light.
Last year my girlfriend took us out to a fancy dinner on a night of celebration. We went to the Boulcott Street Bistro. It was a Thursday night. The mains were the size of entrees and were $40 each. As we were leaving, regretting seeing “how the other half lives”, we passed Arise pastors John and Gillian Cameron, lit up by the candle on their table, perfectly at ease.