It's not everyone who can casually drop this into conversation: I grew up in a Christian community. It was a little like Gloriavale, without the Amish-inspired bonnets and the sexual abuse allegations.

I was about 6 when we joined. This was in 1990 or thereabouts. My mum was trying to raise two kids by herself in an unsettled South Africa. My dad hadn't long before taken off back to New Zealand.

So, with the enthusiasm of a newly born-again Christian, my mum moved us into the community that had just arrived in town.

The pastor was into Zionism, so we all lived in houses kibbutz-style. Me, my mum and my 4-year-old brother shared a big bedroom in the back corner of a big house.


Danny, the young Danish guy with the crippled hand from a bad car crash, lived in the room next door. There was Jonathan the chef from the big city who was running away from several failed restaurants and Sam, the Maori guy from New Zealand who played the guitar.

We all lived in three houses on the same street.

The pastor and his family lived in a house on the better side of town. His name was Doug and he used to be a car salesman. Ironic, I know.

I loved the community. Danny didn't mind if I climbed through his window to chat. I played outside with pastor Doug's daughter. There was always someone around to entertain me.

Then the community moved en masse up north, to a farm donated by a benefactor. My mum gave up her job and we went, too. Everyone began to work to build the community.

That's when Doug the pastor changed his name to Davit. His son Dustin became Gad. One of the elders went from Pierre to Joshua. You've got to have Bible names if you're running a Zionist kibbutz commune, you know.

We eventually left. It's a long time ago, so it's hard to know exactly what went wrong, but, broadly, the man my mum married in the community fell out of favour with the leadership.

We left in a cream Datsun with enough petrol money to get us the 1500km back to the town we came from.


It takes a while, but you eventually figure out that some things you're taught in a community like this are best discarded.

A grown man's shoe is not an appropriate tool with which to discipline a child. A man shouldn't demand his wife and children obey him simply because he is a man.

Some things are harder to shake. It'll cause my husband no end of amusement to finally learn the reason we haven't yet watched a single episode of Game of Thrones is because the community told me not to watch gratuitous sex or violence on screen.

Communities like these are more common than you think, and in less secular countries than ours, they barely cause a fuss. They're started with good intentions. They're often run with good intentions.

The trouble is they're mostly run by men who aren't democratically elected so it doesn't matter if they behave like dickheads. No one can take their leadership away.

You can probably understand why I'm not clamouring to press my nose against the steaming windows of Gloriavale and peer inside - I already have a good idea of what I'd see. Old folks surrounded by kids and grandkids, instead of being stuck in an old age home. People eating lunch together in a big hall instead of swallowing entire chunks of sandwich over a keyboard.

I'd see plenty of folks who aren't faking it. They really do want to be in what they consider their own wee version of heaven on earth.

But I also know I'd see things I don't want to see. A group of smug men teaching their growing boys to treat their wives as servants and childcarers. Group bullying of anyone who would dare to question if it's really necessary to avoid bacon just because some guys 2000 years ago hadn't figured out cold storage.

I'd see corporal punishment and, if the allegations are true, far worse.

These people want to be left alone and that's their right. To a point.

They are still, however, subject to the laws of the country we all live in, whether they like it or not.

The challenge for us is to establish how much we should impose on them - and make sure those rules are followed - and if we have done enough up to now.

I've been back to the community I grew up in in South Africa, just to say hi. Danny with the broken hand ended up marrying Stephanie, the daughter of my mum's friends.

Stephanie's youngest brother moved into the community, too. He had a job and a fiancee but dropped in for a visit, gave it all up, and married a community girl.

About 150 people live on that farm. They have a coffee plantation, a restaurant, a doctor, an accountant, musicians and a big steel gate between them and the rest of the world.

I think I'll stay on this side of it.

What do you think?