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Oh my God? EPISODE FOUR: THE COMMUNITY EFFECT

In people’s search for meaning, they often end up with like-minded individuals in groups or communities, which often strengthens their faith. Christian communities have always been prominent in New Zealand society, but are they losing their significance? The way a Christian community is lead can either make or break a persons faith. Elizabeth Thomson and Harry Poland look at the effect of Christian communities on young people.

watch the first part of the documentary below

RYKAH HADAWAY, 21, RELIGIOUS

Twenty-one-year-old Rykah Hadaway was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Growing up, that meant meetings (a type of church service) twice a week, and door-knocking at the weekend. He’s now studying radio broadcasting, and believes ‘Witnessing’ has helped.

“Knocking on doors I think gave me a lot of confidence - to have the confidence I have now to study what I study.”

Despite its advantages, Rykah found some of the religion’s practices a little more challenging.

Disfellowshipping happens when a baptised member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses leaves the religion, resulting in less contact with members of the church. For Rykah, he sees both sides of the argument - this kind of treatment can encourage people back to the faith, but experiencing it within his own family was tough.

“I found that as a kid growing up really hard to take, especially with some family members who I knew were getting less contact with the rest of our family because of the fact that they did something wrong when they were younger, or because they may not have taken the religion so seriously.”

Now, Rykah’s unsure where he stands on his faith at this stage of his life and that suits him just fine.

“I haven’t found a new religion from being a Jehovah’s Witness growing up, or I haven’t decided I don’t believe in God. I’m just kind of floating and doing my own thing, and I feel okay about it at the moment.”

CAITLIN BROWN, 20, CHRISTIAN

Caitlin Brown, who is a medical student, was also raised in religion. She attended a Christian school for all thirteen years of her primary and secondary education and says while it was really enjoyable, she became trapped in an identity role.

“I enjoyed being in one school for that period of time, because it meant I could see the people around me growing up, and becoming more like the people they are today. But equally, there are some times I wish I’d gone to a different school, so I could have a different experience, because sometimes I felt kind of trapped in a particular role that I’d grown up in.”

She thinks going to a Christian school can be really helpful as it is a “supportive and caring environment” for children to explore their faith, and says she felt comfortable discussing her faith with teachers, speculating that might happen less in non-Christian schools.

Now twenty-years-old and looking back on her Christian upbringing, she says it has its positives as well as its negatives.

“It can be quite sheltered at times, there are a lot of things that aren’t necessarily acknowledged within Christian circles, but again I found it to be quite positive because it opened my eyes to certain things I don’t think that would be acknowledged otherwise, like my mortality.”

AIDAN SMITH, 21, ATHIEST

In contrast, Aidan Smith was raised by two atheist parents, and the twenty-one-year-old software engineering and chemistry student has retained the beliefs of his upbringing. He attended a Christian high school, where he found mandatory weekly chapel boring because it was preaching obvious morals.

“It was either the morals were already there, and so simple and straightforward… and others I would simply disagree with some moral arguments that the Bible would make, for instance pride being bad - a sin.”

He enjoyed religious education however, because as a class they would be presented with “various moral conundrums”, in which discussions could be had and moral beliefs applied.

Aidan believes religious education in schools can be split into two aspects, historical and philosophical, and the debate around whether it should be compulsory is based on the merits of those subjects.

“Currently R.E. is trying to solve two problems, and that can get confusing about whether you should make it compulsory or not. Because if you think history should be compulsory, but philosophy shouldn’t, then you’re mixed on religious education because there are some sides that are historical, and there are some sides that are much more on the moral end of education.”

Despite his personal views, Aidan still acknowledges religion has its benefits within society, so if it dies out in the future it must be replaced with other values.

“I hope that something replaces it. I think that if it just died out without replacing it, the world would be worse. I think if it died out with the community, and family and other secular ideas replacing it, then the world would be better.”

LILIA TARAWA, EX-GLORIAVALE. SPEAKER, AUTHOR

Located on the West Coast of the South Island, Gloriavale Christian Community is one of New Zealand’s most well-known and scrutinised Christian communities. Writer and public speaker Lilia Tarawa lived in the community for the first 18 years of her life and in the beginning, she had no reason to leave;

“I had my life mapped out for me… and I was really excited about that life for myself. I wanted to stay there for the rest of my life. There was no reason for me to even think about going anywhere else.”

Lilia lost contact with her older siblings at a young age when they fled the commune. They were excommunicated as a result, but she still had the support of her Gloriavale family which helped her in the grieving for the loss of her close family. However, as she got older she began to notice some actions in the community that she disagreed with. One such moment was when Lilia witnessed a father carrying out corporal punishment on his son at the front of a classroom.

“I just knew in my heart that was wrong. I’ve always had a deep conscience, so to speak, of what is morally okay and what is not and cruelty is a real issue for me.”

Years after leaving, Lilia is adamant she's not religious but emphasises it’s not because she had a bad experience with Gloriavale, but because she has looked at all of the facts and made an informed decision - something frowned upon in Gloriavale.

“For me, I’m not going to have blind faith in a religion, and I was taught that a lot in Gloriavale - ‘Trust in God, have faith, and if you’re doubting your religion or questioning it then you’re not showing faith’. Whereas now, if you’re doubting your religion or if you’re questioning it, you’re an intelligent, curious human being, who’s trying to figure things out for themselves and I encourage that!”

WATCH THE SECOND PART OF THE DOCUMENTARY, ON GLORIAVALE, BELOW

HANNAH HARRISON, EX-GLORIAVALE, 24.

Twenty-four-year-old Hannah Harrison also fled the Gloriavale Christian Community. Growing up, she describes herself as obedient, and explains having to tell on other children because they were taught that if they didn’t, they were guilty by association.

“As a young teenager, I was very much sort of legalistic, the rule-abiding kid that told on everyone else. Not because I was particularly a tattle-tale, but just because I had this sort of conscience that if I didn’t tell on them, I would be just as bad as they were. And they definitely pushed that, so if I knew that someone had a pair of ankle-socks or something, and I didn’t go and tell someone, then I was participating in their wrong. So that was quite a big thing for me as a younger teenager.”

This sort of accountability to the leaders infiltrated into every aspect of society, with Hannah saying the leaders would never admit they were playing God, “but that was the impression they gave you”. She began questioning Gloriavale in her later teen years, and this presented a different set of problems.

“As I got older I started to disagree with them on some things, and it was more a fear of if I actually said what I thought, I would get in a lot of trouble for it. I learnt to just be quiet and just not say anything, and let people think that I was good or whatever, to look good in other people’s eyes.”

When Hannah first had thoughts of leaving, her instinct was to pray to God to make it stop. But one day, she came to the realisation that God must be allowing her to see all of these things that were wrong in the community for a reason. She began discussing the idea with her sister and some close friends, but their talking caused whispers among the community. Her family had also been thinking about leaving, and the turning point came when her parents were found taking a clandestine visit to a Timaru church.

“… And then someone found out about it, and we were like, ‘Right, we need to convince my parents to leave within the next few days, because they’re going to split up my family.’ So it was a matter of three days between then, and us actually leaving.”

Now she’s left and settled in Timaru, she certainly won’t adhere to some of the rules that used to define her life ever again.

“Now, if some guy came and said, ‘You’re supposed to be wearing socks’, I would say, ‘That's ridiculous, who do you think you are?’ But at the time, I don’t even think you realise how much you are controlled by fear, and how much your thinking is affected by the fear.”

peter lineham, emeritus professor of history, massey university. author.

Emeritus Professor of History at Massey University Auckland, Peter Lineham is a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to religious history and the community, and has written three books, one of which is on Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church.

Professor Lineham says religious communities can become dangerous when they start messing with members heads, which can often occur when the leadership makes the claim that they are talking for God. It is at this point where disobeying the leaders becomes alike to disobeying God, so this can cause major conflict and inner turmoil for a member of that group.

He says the word cult is often thrown around with disregard for its proper meaning, but believes a community could be considered a cult if it displays the following characteristics.

“Groups in which loyalty is demanded, and freedom of thinking and choice is undermined. So that the person that connects in this kind of way, has much less freedom, and feels it’s almost impossible to exit easily, from the connection.”

Professor Lineham says being in a small, isolated community that is cut off from the outside world can make it hard to leave because of relationships in the group.

“If you want to say the concept of a total community, in a total community, that’s really problematic because you live, you sleep, you are monitored throughout. And that’s very, very difficult to leave, so all of your family and friends are with that group.”

He says Gloriavale can be a positive experience for its members, but also very trapping. It all depends on whether they are fully subscribed to the lifestyle.

“Glorivale is a mixed experience. For those within Gloriavale, so long as you accept the notion of communitarian living, and of a common purse, and of no individualism; actually, for people that work on that framework Gloriavale works fine… Any person who starts to think for themselves, any person who is in any way attracted to the other things that are on offer apart from what’s on offer within the group, is going to feel claustrophobic.”

ben walker, pastor, story church

Ben Walker, a 31-year-old American, is the lead pastor of a new kind of community which started in Christchurch six months ago. Story church is moulded around a community, rather than a church, as Ben believes communities are unconditionally inclusive, whereas churches often have certain standards that have to be met.

“I feel communities are very different from how churches operate... In church environments, there’s typically more of a sense of belonging, but only if you believe what we believe and become like us and behave like us, and if you can do those things then you have belonging.”

Story attracts a predominantly younger following, and is a community where people still have a relationship with God, but without going to church. This kind of unconditional belonging creates more of a community atmosphere, something Ben and the team believe all people want to experience and are passionate about creating.

“I think an important part of community is the sense of belonging. Every single human being wants belonging.”

CHLOE SWARBRICK, GREEN PARTY MP

We have looked into the impact of Christian communities on young people's lives, but what about looking into where education on Christianity begins?

Currently, religious education is taught on an “exclusively opt-out basis”, and Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is arguing that system should go. It’s currently covered under the Education Act, but Swarbrick says the opt-out basis appears “at present to be inconsistent with New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act, 1990”.

She has had personal experience as a young girl, deciding to actively opt-out of religious education, and says she remembers how hard it was to complete that process.

“We have the ability to educate our young people about communities and about values and about the world’s religions, without having to subject them to what can essentially at times be akin to indoctrination.”

Swarbrick is also calling for more transparency on how religious education is taught in schools.

“It should never be presented as the one and only way, and the truth. So there should always be a lens of critique. So in the way that we currently have religious instruction as provided for, and as is playing out in practice through the Education Act, I do think that it needs to change.”

where to next?

Change is hard work. And that's something Lilia Tarawa knows only too well.

“It takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of honesty, to look at yourself, to confront your truths. And then a lot of self-acceptance and self-compassion, and self-love that whatever you choose is okay if it's right for you.”

WATCH THE FINAL PART OF THIS EPISODE HERE

Credits:

Produced by Elizabeth Thomson and Harry Poland Created with images by John Schnobrich - "together now" • Dan Dimmock - "Laptop glasses notebook desk" • Iñaki del Olmo - "An old book store from the city of Bilbao." • Bryn Parish - "The natural New Zealand bush never ceases to amazing me with its beauty. This shot was taken on a walk to a dam out the back of Picton, in New Zealand’s South Island. You don’t need to stray far from the walking tracks to find beauty. This Punga tree was hanging over a small stream where a bridge passed overtop, allowing an amazing arial view of the amazing patterns." • Werner Sevenster - "country road" • Warren Wong - "untitled image" • Pablo Heimplatz - "At 5.30am we stand at the top of the hill in the Mt Cook national park in New Zealand to celebrate that awesome sunrise. The photo was taken with the self-timer." • Kristopher Roller - "Drowning"