There is a reason why society loves the story of an underdog. We draw personal inspiration from witnessing an ardent soul rise from the ashes of a past life and emerge as the master of their fate; those who have overcome the seemingly impossible and defied the meagre expectations of others. Lilia Te Aroha Māia Tarawa is one such example; possibly one of New Zealand’s most notable examples.
In October 1990, Lilia was born into the Gloriavale community, a fundamentalist Christian church, at that time situated on the Springbank property in the township of Cust, a fraction north of Christchurch. Lilia inherited the nickname ‘pioneering baby’, as she was just six weeks old when the community began its move to the Haupiri Valley on the West Coast, where it remains today. Throughout her juvenile years in Gloriavale, her existence was the embodiment of a cruel juxtaposition. She was surrounded by a loving family and a secure, close-knit community. The lush West Coast environment provided for an enriching lifestyle; it fills her visual memory with a serene beauty. Her days were motivating and the virtues of hope, love and eternity were expressed in equal measure by her peers and mentors alike. She never wanted for companionship, health or purpose, and her family’s every need was provided for. It was heaven on earth, so Lilia was led to believe.
However, like a house built upon the sand, the foundation to this way of life was unstable, fractured and, as she would come to realise in adulthood, immoral. Lurking beneath the surface of this superficial bliss was a cruel motive to mould Lilia into a subservient and meek woman, whose only purpose in life would be to honour men, forsake her character and blindly worship Gloriavale’s interpretation of ‘God’. According to the rules, as expressed by Gloriavale’s prevailing doctrine, she was to never achieve in the areas of leadership or intellect, nor independence in deed or thought. She was to be nothing other than a daughter of Gloriavale. Her life was to be a living hell, void of true freedom in a despotic cult. Debate exists as to whether the Gloriavale community constitutes a ‘cult’, or is simply a humble ‘new religious movement’; some declare the former to be an unfair and pejorative term. For the purposes of this story, the phrase ‘cult’ will be used in accordance with the definition outlined by Robert Jay Lifton in his paper ‘Cult Formation’, wherein the organisation in question can be defined by: a charismatic leader who becomes the group’s single most defining member and source of power; a process of coercive persuasion and thought reform, what some may consider to be ‘brainwashing’; and economic and/or sexual exploitation of group members by the ruling coterie. All three characteristics fit with the Gloriavale community.
Lilia’s personal memoir, Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult, was published in 2017 and recounts the nuances of her life as a part of Gloriavale. It details how, as a youth, she wrestled with the confusing and retrospectively harsh expectations placed upon women, as well as how a life of spiritual trepidation has since affected her adjustment to society. Whilst reading this book, one becomes immediately aware of the remarkable ability Lilia obtained as a child to critically analyse the details of life around her, despite the fact that her education and development was exclusively confined to the teaching and guidance of the leadership clique within Gloriavale, particularly that of her grandfather, Hopeful Christian.
In 2017, Lilia also delivered a talk at the TEDxChristchurch event; a raw and emotional retelling of how Gloriavale’s interpretation of the Christian faith stripped pieces from her character, and how she has since rebuilt herself, through determination and resilience, as a role model to others trying to accept and love themselves for who they are, and not what a particular segment of society may expect them to be. Her talk has since been viewed over eight million times on YouTube. Lilia is self-employed as a writer and public speaker, as well as a business and brand coach, helping individuals and groups discover and foster their authenticity as leaders of their community. She speaks regularly at business events on the topics of equality, empowerment and inclusion, and at schools about leadership; discovering one’s purpose; and the importance of curiosity and critical thinking.
‘[In Glorivale] we were not to ask questions, we were to do what we were told,’ Lilia tells me. ‘I’m really protective of our youth. For me, curiosity is really important, because it prevents [young people] from falling into nasty situations, like accepting a cult’s teachings. Maintaining a curious mind keeps people motivated to learn more. I think a lot of people choose to be religious because they have religious parents, and they may not ever have the opportunity, or freedom, to question it.’
There is no doubt that Lilia’s journey is still defining itself. Two-thirds of her life has been drenched in the apocryphal river of Gloriavale’s beliefs, and the 10 short years of transition since have been marred by periods of anxiety and insecurity, almost as if she remains a refugee in her own country. She describes in her book, on forging a new chapter in life, that no matter how far she ran from her former circumstances, nor how painstakingly she attempted to bury her pain, her experiences in Gloriavale were consistently returning to haunt her.
We spoke on the topic of integration. Whilst Lilia has found residence outside the realm of Gloriavale, she does not feel as though she fully belongs to it yet; it’s almost as if the tendrils of her former life have not completely relinquished their grasp upon her. ‘In many ways, I don’t know where I belong, and feel like I may be integrating [to this society] for the rest of my life.’ This uncertainty was exacerbated by the self-judgement which plagued Lilia’s adolescence; a promise of eternal damnation to sinners, a weapon brandished against all community members by Gloriavale’s fundamentalist teaching. As Lilia grew to explore her sense of self, style and sexuality, the fear of damning herself to hell haunted many decisions. Would she be denied entry to heaven if she wore nail polish, or if she shaved her legs? If she kissed a man outside of marriage, what then? For so long she thought society was judging her every move, just like the scrutiny she had been under during her time at Gloriavale.
In her memoir, Lilia recalls an event wherein the community’s youth were gathered around a bonfire and ordered to purge themselves of all ‘contraband’: worldly possessions such as books, make-up and clothing otherwise forbidden by the laws of Gloriavale. This emotional abuse convinced Lilia that she was destined for hell unless she cast her ‘worldly items’ into the fire. Among the items to be burned were her Shania Twain cassette tapes that she had been listening to in secret. Such insecurity and fear followed her into adulthood; echoes of previous judgements circulated in her mind, until one day she made a commitment to herself to purge anyone else’s judgements from her consciousness, and resolved that she was now the captain at the helm of her soul. But the process did not occur overnight; many tears were shed in the pursuit of self-worth.
There is, however, one particular aspect to her character of which she is certain: her Māori heritage. When I spoke with her, we engaged in a quick hypothetical: how would she introduce herself now to an absolute stranger? Her first answer, delivered with utmost poise, was that she is Māori. ‘Reconnection to my Māori roots, to my whānau [outside of Gloriavale] and the use of the language, has given me a sense of identity. Those are connections that I am entitled to, and have given me a sense of integration here.’ When Lilia uses the word ‘entitled’, with respect to her Māori heritage, she does not do so gratuitously. One of the more disturbing chapters of Lilia’s memoir recounts an experience wherein she was instructed to discard any claim she had of her Māori heritage, as a sign of supposed submissiveness to Jesus Christ. She was told that once a person made a commitment to the church, any previous identity they held onto must be forsaken, lest they ‘breed contempt among brethren’. A disguised attempt to further break down her character and instil conformity; Lilia describes how furious she became upon receiving such absurdity, to be expected to deny who she was, deep down. Regaining and exploring her cultural heritage has not only helped with a separation from a life of conformity, but also provided Lilia with a lifeline to ‘tangata whenua’, an ancestry that was unavailable to her previously; a spiritual connection back to the land. And, as Lilia articulates at several points in her memoir, this has been most celebrated through the unification with her grandmother, Nga Honore Roimata Tarawa, or ‘Taua’, a respectful term given to Māori elders. Lilia describes her grandmother as gentle, but confident and powerful in demeanour. With such a character, Taua helped Lilia discover that the truth to any concept of ‘God’ was love, and not obedience, as was being taught within Gloriavale’s walls. Taua helped Lilia realise that ‘a person didn’t need to have the same beliefs as Gloriavale to be acceptable to God’. Summarising her feelings for her grandmother, Lilia declares that she could sense the love of God flowing out of her.
Lilia has grown confident in a renewed sense of spirituality. She has consciously decided that she is no longer religious, yet still enjoys the essence of all belief systems, provided that they spread a message of love and inclusion. This has included reconciling with the better memories from her time in Gloriavale. In her memoir, when reflecting upon ‘a loving community’, Lilia tells of family holidays and youth parties that were organised by Gloriavale elders. This would include sharing letters of love and reassurance. In one letter, Lilia is told that she has ‘a leading spirit’. In another, her strength of character was admired. In every message, she is assured of the deep love that her parents have for her. She believes that these positive elements are too often overlooked in the media’s portrayal of Gloriavale; a more balanced perspective may be needed, rather than Gloriavale being used as a scapegoat in response to society’s wider problems. ‘Gloriavale is still a part of New Zealand’s society, and they are doing much better [than broader society] in communal support of each other. Suicide and mental health rates are shocking here; maybe we have something to learn from them?’
Separating from a life of judgement and control was never going to be a seamless process; its shackles still being broken and cast away. She may forever be regaining her conviction for life; a faith in her own actions and a willingness to trust relationships or hierarchical authority. But, overall, it appears that she has saddled the horses of her destiny and begun to blaze her own trail. She has discovered her passions and values, notably working with youth and cause for human rights. She has forged her own style and has confidence in stature; she believes in her role in life: to enhance the relationships people have with themselves. All of this is evident when I speak with her, as her face glows with excitement and the charismatic gestures of her hands may just be metaphorically indicating the direction of such a future. She is an independent and powerful woman of Māori origin, free to devote herself to whānau and to carve her own path. No one will strip this from her character ever again. She is a warrior. She is a daughter of Aotearoa.
Lilia Te Aroha Māia Tarawa is to be the keynote speaker at the annual Zonta Ashburton Women’s Breakfast, 8.30 am 14 March at Hotel Ashburton. Tickets are available for purchase from the latitude Media office, 68 Tancred Street, Ashburton (cash required), through any Zonta Ashburton Member or via email . Places are limited so book your seat today!
Words Isaac McCarthy