Hopeful Christian's death might flatten the spirit at Gloriavale, but it has spiked their potential for mockery - and celebrity. Can something so discomforting also be humorous, asks Anke Richter.
Only a PR God could have made this happen: the patriarch of Gloriavale died last Tuesday - the same day that the new episodes of the controversial TVNZ doco series were released. Hours after the media frenzy started, the prostate cancer victim tweeted from the other side: "Gone But Never Forgotten #seeyousoon #judgementdayiscoming".
That's when I became Hopeful Christian's 14th follower.
The next day, the 92-year-old with a doppelgänger Twitter account was buried. Estranged family members voiced their conflicting feelings about the religious leader while new sexual abuse allegations emerged.
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One heartfelt tribute about Hopeful Christian on social media stood out: "He was the pedo with a purpose, the sex offender who sacrificed years of his life to serve a community full of young children ... We have always been in constant admiration of his devotion to his faith, taxes and his child-minding skills." It wasn't posted in a cult survivor chat group. I saw it on a popular Facebook page, "Hopeful memes for Gloriavale teens".
After all the sad and shocking truths we have lately learned about this parallel universe, here's the latest revelation: Our most extreme sect, New Zealand made and 100 percent pure faith, is broadly loathed by feminists and atheists - but apparently loved by youngsters and pranksters.
Whether with disdain or delight, everyone has been watching the hour-long Gloriavale docos, reruns and new 10 minute episodes - including Lilia Tarawa, the 27-year-old author of the best-selling book Daughter of Gloriavale. "I used to freak out - it brought on a lot of trauma and anxiety", she told me on Friday. "Nowadays, it doesn't trouble me in the same way it used to, but I find it disconcerting to listen to the dull, rehearsed scripts of suppressed women dance on cheerio tunes. More so when jacked up by a bright male narration. It would have been less effort to hire a billboard painted with 'Gloriavale: The Lifestyle of Your Dreams'. I watched the episodes tonight and just stared at my computer screen thinking, 'this has got to be a sick joke.'"
While the filmmaker has copped flak for her positive portrayals - she insists that people who live there "genuinely seem relaxed and happy" - there are those who clearly cannot get enough of them. If you have a secret Gloriavale obsession, you're not alone.
For the poor girl answering the phone at the remote West Coast community, it's hell. When I called there this week, she confirmed to me that she gets hassled and abused a lot, then put me on hold while evangelical music played. Fervent Steadfast, one of the seniors who is now in charge, came on the line. "It's true. There's a lot of prejudice around, with all the media. It's quite interesting for the girls, but I don't really want to go into detail", the secretary and treasurer said, curtly. "We give the girls instructions, certainly, but we can't stop the calls coming, can we?"
The "Hopeful Christian" on Twitter, I soon found out, is an 18-year-old sports student at Massey University. "When the first documentary came out in 2015, it became a craze around our school, like a phenomenon overnight", he told me. "I'm a Christian myself and couldn't believe something like Gloriavale exists in New Zealand. I mean, their outfits! I'm kinda shocked - and a fan."
Happy couple Paul and Pearl Valour were his favourites. Now it's young mum Dove Love. TVNZ knows how to cater for the fan base: There are "Gloriavale Extras" as excerpts on demand, the most popular one a sing-along video of Dove Love's schmaltzy wedding song.
The charismatic disciple even has her own Facebook page with 5,000-plus likes. Something's going on. Is the poster girl of Gloriavale sneakily hiding a smart phone under her robe to go online? This was her Christmas message:
TVNZ said they can "100 percent confirm the Facebook page has nothing to do with TVNZ". Then who is the fake "Dove Love"? I haven't found out yet, and I couldn't get the attention of the organisers of "Rhythm and Gloriavale" either who are followed by over 16,000 users and have been planning a boozy invasion of the place they love to mock. So instead, I interviewed the Gloriavale meme page. Most of their fans are between 18 to 24 years old, some do watching sessions for the new episodes on TVNZ. The administrators are five high-school boys from Christchurch who also want to stay anonymous. We chatted.
"It started as a sort of inside joke between three of us after studying Gloriavale in English about two years ago. Then people started to catch on outside of our friend circle who liked the docos." They had a teenage crush on Dove Love. "The song 'I'm so blessed' was a hit with both us and our fans."
One of the students even visited Gloriavale three years ago, was offered a tour by Hopeful Christian and had lunch with everybody. He saw "a lot of places they haven't shown on the series", like their own airstrip and a hunting lodge. The teenager is not sure if Gloriavale realizes this meme page exists. "We did, however, get contacted by former members, they understood that we were just making jokes, but they seemed upset. We of course made some changes to images that may be found rude."
I had just been talking to one of those former members, a young woman who has been out of Gloriavale for just over two years and was angry about the posts - especially seeing a photo of her family, although they had shunned her. It felt like a violation to her.
She would have not been attending the fictional event that the meme page makers had just put up: "Everybody pray to bring Hopeful Christian back to life". But 117 people "went".
The organisers told me: "We are trying to be satirical in our approach and we have not been afraid to address the problems there. We are not here to make fun of the people suffering in Gloriavale." You could say they're just treating them like a zoo - with paparazzi. "Hopeful memes for Gloriavale teens" receive a lot of photos of Gloriavale people seen venturing out across the South Island, in places like malls and dairies. "One of our admins has seen a pair on a date in a park on the West Coast. We've also received pictures of people dressing as Gloriavale members for Halloween parties and such."
It's time for my confession: Two years ago, I joined a group of female friends who went to a Halloween party in long blue costumes they had hired from the Ferrymead Heritage Park in Christchurch. We were clutching bibles and wooden spoons and had names like "Joyful Threesome" and "Golden Showers". I admit that I was laughing almost as much as I was cringing. Guilty pleasures.
In my moral dilemma, I finally consult Lilia Tarawa, a poster child in her own right - as an inspiring, empowered woman. Last week, her tearful TEDx talk jumped over three million views. The writer and speaker has kept quiet about Hopeful Christian's death, but is happy to talk to me about Gloriavale dress-ups. "I would laugh at it - but how is it impacting on others, and what are we actually celebrating? Would we dress up as Nazis?" I know the answer, especially as a German. It's not just a matter of respect for victims, but of rehabilitation, says Lilia.
"When people who have come from Gloriavale see things like that, they will immediately feel that they don't fit in: People are making mockery of the world they've come from." That's how she felt for a long time: not accepted. "I've come far enough to stand on my own two feet and have a laugh, but not everyone is that way. We should not make it harder for them."
Lilia Tarawa is equally amazed by the Gloriavale celebrity craze. "Kiwi youth always ask me about Dove Love when I speak at schools - if I know her, what is she like. I'm walking on a tight rope to spread the message of oppression that is there but still have a connection through the humour as well." So - forgive me - but what is Dove Love like then? "She's my cousin, I grew up with her. I can see how Dove thinks it's her godly duty to be a light to the world and that she will be rewarded in heaven. When I was living there, I played the same role."
And all those Gloriavale memes that keep coming? "They're hilarious. Me and my friend scroll through them and laugh our heads off. A good dose of humour goes a long way when it comes to emotional healing and coping with the darker side."
Relieved from my sins, I finally googled my Gloriavale name. It's Chastity Victory.
Anke Richter is a correspondent for the German media and the author of three books