Mar 27, 2024

Ex- Gloriavale couple share their unique love story

MARCH 27, 2024

Despite an extreme campaign to drive them apart, Rosie and Elijah Overcomer escaped to a new life together.

It takes immense bravery to leave the confines of an insular, tightly knit community like Gloriavale. Especially when it’s the only life you’ve ever known and you’ve been told since birth that the community is your sanctuary from an outside world that is inherently evil and dangerous.

Rosanna, known as Rosie, and Elijah Overcomer are second-generation Gloriavale members who, 11 years ago, found the courage to leave the reclusive religious sect.

Along with other former and current Gloriavale members, they’re sharing their compelling story in TVNZ’s documentary series Escaping Utopia, which offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the community, and reveals shocking new information about the allegations of abuse, control and exploitation that have plagued it for years.

At one stage, Rosie, 37, and Elijah, 34, were tapped for future leadership positions at Gloriavale by its founder and former leader, the late Hopeful Christian. However, in 2013, the couple decided to start a new life outside the West Coast community, following an extreme campaign by the sect’s leaders to drive them apart.

“We first started questioning things when we got married and had our first baby,” reveals Rosie. “Then everything was fast-tracked after our third child arrived.”

Elijah was removed from Gloriavale when he confronted Hopeful about his criminal conviction for sexual abuse. This led to Rosie and their three children being whisked away on a small aeroplane and put into hiding in a remote location where she wasn’t allowed contact with Elijah or the outside world for six weeks.

The dramatic story of their escape from the grip of the community’s leaders and the only life they ever knew unfolds in the second episode of this thrilling series.

One thing the Gloriavale leaders did get incredibly right, however, was the arranged marriage of Rosie and Elijah, who were 22 and 19 at the time.

Today, their deep love for each other is evident as they chat with Woman’s Day from the Fairlie farm where they are successful sharemilkers. The go-getting couple lease another farm in Fairlie, as well as one on the West Coast, where they run a second dairy herd with Elijah’s sister Heavenly.

Rosie and Elijah are happy, relaxed and speak with pride about their family of six gorgeous children, aged from 14 to five, who each have big dreams of their own.

The Overcomer whānau has come a long way in the last decade, but their journey hasn’t always been easy. Like many former Gloriavale members, Rosie and Elijah faced numerous challenges as they started to forge their own identities separate from the confines of the community.

As well as grappling with feelings of isolation, questioning everything they believed to be true and the guilt of leaving family members behind, Rosie and Elijah had to learn to adjust to – and trust – the outside world and the people in it, recalls Elijah.

“It’s hard to have confidence in your own decision-making when you’ve been taught your ideas aren’t good and everything comes from the leaders,” he explains. “We were told in Gloriavale that if good things happen, it is the Devil trying to look after you, so even when people were doing nice things for us on the outside, it was hard to trust.”

Rosie and Elijah’s first stop after leaving the community was Christchurch, where some of their family already lived.

Elijah got a firewood delivery and lawn-mowing job, but after managing the deer farm at Gloriavale, he was keen to get into farming. He applied for around 40 jobs and finally secured work on a deer farm in Timaru.

“We were happy to go to Timaru, where we didn’t know anyone, so we could figure out who we were, what we were into and suss out our lives.”

A large farmhouse was provided with the job. The Overcomer family moved in with their few boxes of possessions and very little furniture, not even a fridge. “It was the most empty house you’d ever find,” Rosie recalls.

She faced significant adjustments in the early days too, such as learning to be a mother without the support of other community members and adapting to practical tasks, like using a cellphone, Eftpos card and online banking. Making friends was also difficult, she admits.

“I didn’t want to get too close to people in the beginning because I thought they’d cut me off as soon as they realised I didn’t believe the same things they did. I didn’t want to go through that hurt again, and felt really lost and lonely for a long time.”

After a year in Timaru, the family moved to Fairlie, where Elijah and Rosie started to climb the sharemilking ladder.

“We aim to produce as much food as we can sustainably and are close to reaching our ultimate goal of owning our own farm,” Elijah says proudly. “When I was managing the deer farm at Gloriavale, they told me I’d never make it. Ever since, I’ve been motivated to prove them wrong.”

Despite the many uncertainties they’ve faced, Rosie, Elijah, and their children are thriving. The family has a large circle of friends, with 200 joining them at a 2023 party to celebrate 10 years since leaving Gloriavale. Elijah plays rugby for a local team and Rosie enjoyed her first season of social netball last year.

“We love watching our kids’ sports too and seeing all the opportunities they have to give different things a go,” she says.

The doco shows actual goings-on at Gloriavale.

The couple are the only former members to be on the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust, which assists former members to become independent and integrate into local communities, says Rosie.

“Our role is to be a voice and advocate for our people who have left, and those still in Gloriavale who might want to leave or need help and support.”

Despite everything they’ve been through, Rosie and Elijah remain hopeful that real change at Gloriavale is possible, brought about by people like them sharing their stories, and the ongoing scrutiny from media, the police and government agencies.

“There’s a lot more that needs to happen, but progress is being made,” says Elijah.

As they look ahead to their own bright future, the couple want to continue to inspire others to understand their own value.

“We believe that on the day of our birth, God gives us more gifts than we can possibly imagine and we spend the rest of our lives unwrapping them,” Elijah explains. “That’s one of our life mottos we love to pass on.”

Escaping Utopia premieres Sunday 24 March, 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ+, continuing Tuesday and Wednesday.

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