First date bombshell: ‘My online soulmate grew up in Gloriavale’

''When I met Joe I wanted to be upfront from day dot because you either accept it or you don’t,'' explains Tendy, who was born in the West Coast religious community.

Joe Evans was new to online dating when he walked into a café in Christchurch almost four years ago to meet a beautiful blonde he’d matched with on Tinder.

The tiler had casually chatted to a few women on the dating app, but they weren’t like Tendy Cooper.

Joe was attracted to the solo mum’s independence and drive, and the fact she was as happy single as she was ready to commit.

But he hadn’t expected to be hit with a bombshell about her past on their first date. Tendy – named Tender-Joy at birth – was born in Gloriavale.

“Tendy dropped the bomb on me straight away to see how I’d react, but I can’t remember my thoughts or feelings because I must’ve been so surprised,” laughs Joe, 33, who quickly fell for her bubbly personality.

Four year-old Tendy with her mother Prayer, sister Dawn and baby brother Andreas.

“It didn’t scare me off. If anything I was more interested in hearing the story behind it because all I knew was what I’d seen on TV.”

Tendy told her curious date that although she was born in the West Coast religious community, she left at age three. Her father Phil Cooper – son of Gloriavale founder Neville Cooper, aka Hopeful Christian – escaped with his wife Prayer and their five children. They later had another son and daughter.

“When I met Joe I wanted to be upfront from day dot because you either accept it or you don’t,” says the graphic designer, 33, whose mum returned to the commune when she was a kid, and lives there now with Tendy’s eldest and youngest sisters.

“Whoever my partner would be had to accept that part of my life, since I still have a lot of connections to Gloriavale and visit my family there.”

Tendy’s hunter-fisherman beau was the first date she told about her unique birth-place, which her father took her out of during an intricate escape plan.

“That’s the best part of the story!” Joe enthuses. “Her dad distracted the leaders with the help of his brother and cut off all the power in the community. Then they jumped the fence and escaped into the dark night.”

Phil, one of 16 siblings, never returned to the strict confines of his childhood home. Tendy’s mother tried to adjust to life on the outside three times, but she kept returning, eventually settling in Gloriavale for good and giving birth to their youngest daughter there.

“Dad was a businessman and so he was let out to deal with other business people, which allowed him to experience the freedoms of the world,” explains Tendy, who has daughters Zara, eight, from a previous relationship, and Tayah, two.

“He decided he wanted us kids to have a choice, but my mum kept going back. I vaguely remember staying at a house somewhere in Canterbury, being looked after by someone while my dad was away, and my mum and a van full of women came and collected us.”

Tendy and Joe with daughters Tayah (front) and Zara.

The last time Tendy lived with both parents was in 1990 when they moved to America and into Woodcrest, in New York State. It’s a community similar to Gloriavale, but with more freedom and access to the outside world.

Tendy experienced celebrations like birthdays, Christmas and Halloween for the first time, and smiles, “I have my happiest childhood memories there.”

But when Prayer returned to Aotearoa on her own, it was the last time Tendy saw her mother until she was 16.

“My youngest brother was nine months old and I didn’t know Mum was never going to come back,” she recalls.

“As a mother myself now, there’s nothing in this world that could stop me from being with my kids. I always longed for a mother’s love and wanted answers.”

Tendy visits her mum in Gloriavale.

Tendy was living in Australia with her dad when she decided to return to Gloriavale as a teenager.

“At that age you’re discovering yourself, and I couldn’t understand why my mum chose to live without us, so I wanted to ask her,” shares Tendy.

“I went in and got to spend time with her and my sisters, and got closure. Mum truly believes because we were young and didn’t get a choice in leaving, our souls were saved because she went back. In her heart, going back meant her children will go to heaven. She does love me and always has.”

Although Prayer begged her to stay, Tendy returned to Australia. At 25, she moved back to the South Island, single and heavily pregnant with her eldest girl. When Zara was eight months old, Tendy took the bub to Gloriavale.

She explains, “Like any female, I wanted to share with my mum that I was a mother. Before I had Zara, they’d asked if I wanted to go to Gloriavale to have the baby, but I said, ‘No, I want to go to hospital and have painkillers!'”

A few years later, Tendy met Joe online.

“I hit gold,” says smitten Joe.

“Having a child, I obviously wasn’t looking for a fling – I was looking for someone to spend my life with and I was very selective,” she says. “I was done with the small talk of messaging and made a point of meeting matches in person and being direct about what I wanted. Joe was supportive right away.”

When their relationship got serious, Tendy asked him to visit Gloriavale.

She says, “I still care about what my mum thinks and it was important to me that I introduced my partner.

Mum loves Joe and said he was really respectful. Joe loves her too.”

Walking into Gloriavale proved Joe was in it for the long haul.

He tells, “Tendy’s mum’s beliefs are hers and who are we to say they’re right or wrong? In my eyes, she’s a loving mother. But oh to be a fly on the wall at the first family dinner I went to!”

Prayer feeds Tendy’s daughter Tayah in 2018.

The couple weren’t told to wear traditional Gloriavale attire during their overnight stay in the community, but Joe admits he’d have obliged, saying, “It might’ve been better because we walked around in normal clothes and all the families looked at us. Since young kids are taught that outsiders are evil, they’d run and hide behind their parents.”

When the pair took a dip in Gloriavale’s pool, they were blocked off from members of the community. “I was only in shorts and Tendy had a bikini, but you’re not allowed to show skin in there,” he says.

“I went for a tiki tour and found one of the gowns the women swim in and a thin Lycra jumpsuit the men wear. I brought them out and we got dressed up in them.”

The couple visited again when their daughter Tayah was born. Tendy is the only one of Prayer’s children living on the outside to have regular visits, and she feels lucky to have Joe’s support.

They may not see their gran often, but Tendy knows her mother loves the kids. “In her heart, going back meant her children will go to heaven.”

“I love that he can be in any situation and handle himself, because my family’s complicated,” she admits.

“But Joe’s open and always holds his own. I’m also very attracted to his adventurous spirit, and that he always has something fun to do with the girls and me.”

Joe says part of their compatibility is a shared passion for the outdoors and exploring.

“Tendy’s the driving force behind our family and that’s one thing I love about her,” he says. “I hit gold with the first date I met online. I guess it was supposed to be.”

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