Camp David, located on the outskirts of Waipara, is the site of a former notorious religious cult known as the ‘God Squad’, St. John Volunteer Corps or ‘The Full Gospel Mission’ formerly led by ‘Bishop’ Douglas Metcalf. Using a variety of brainwashing techniques, the followers living in the camp were led to believe that Metcalf was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and using his subsequent power – ruling with an iron fist – Metcalf imposed himself on a number of the young victims to satisfy his own sexual desires. Despite the abuse, Metcalf and his supporters thrived throughout the 1970’s, and were able to construct a fortress-like commune. It was here they managed to stockpile military equipment, including firearms and ammunition, to outfit their elite commando unit known as the Special Services Group (SSG). In recent years one of the disciples described how they were preparing to “flee to the hills” in their struggle against communism. Each member of the cult was indoctrinated with the knowledge that communists would capture them and tattoo three numbers on their foreheads – specifically 666 – to prevent their passing to the Promised Land. As the cult grew, Metcalf began to enforce that interaction with non-members was to be avoided, even if this meant discontinuing family ties.
In 1977 the police, suspicious of radicalistic activity in the area, gained a warrant to raid the Waipara fortress. Large weapon stores were uncovered, and, after being apprehended in Blenheim, two sect members were arrested by armed police for transporting explosives. Various news reports exaggerated the story considerably, and rumours spread that napalm bombs were uncovered alongside a nuclear silo – the silo turned out to be the outdoor swimming pool that is located onsite. Still, it emerged that various secret passages and makeshift underground bunkers were uncovered; their existence was declared suspicious but the matter was not pursued. In the aftermath, many of the ‘God Squad’ pleaded innocence, claiming that the weapons were an antique collection; the defence of this argument has recently been reiterated on an online forum. The chief police commissioner’s response, though, was forthright: “never trust a man in camouflage gear”. In the months following the raids, the media frenzy died down as it was realised, allegedly, that most of the weapons were in fact legally obtained; this regardless of the fact that a large proportion of the guns were semi-automatic weapons. The ‘God Squad’ were able to return to their former secretive lifestyle.
Metcalf lived a lavish lifestyle for much of his later life, and while women were manipulated and abused (they were forced to wear scarves, frills, florally decorated clothing and weren’t permitted outside the premises to work) the others under his control toiled on his farm and maintained his self-sufficient community. The men were trained to be subservient and wore skullcap hats to mark their respect. Many people’s evenings were also dedicated to ‘the cause’ as religious activist speeches and discussions were regularly arranged, and they often extended long into the night; it was still required that routine day-to-day work would resume as usual the following day. As expected, Metcalf assumed full charge over much of the financial income that was generated, and much of this was used to develop and expand his six bedroom home and finance several trips to the Middle East. The specific nature of his excursions abroad were unknown by many of the followers, but there were hidden reservations that he was working closely with unsavoury groups. It is known, on the other hand, that Metcalf publically declared that his group were Israelites and brethren of the Jews, but he describes them as being “a very different tribe”. As part and parcel of his financial administration, the members of Metcalf’s elite commando unit were also expected to devote all of their spare income on weaponry, military equipment and ammunition.
Unexpectedly, in June 1989, at the age of 68, Metcalf suffered a fatal heart attack. Followers of his regime watched over his body for 24 hours, anticipating his resurrection. In spite of overhead clouds which apparently gathered into a ‘skull-like formation’, Metcalf remained lifeless. Metcalf’s son-in-law, though, acting as the successor, managed to continue the harsh regime alongside the other sect leaders up until recent years. Gradually, however, around 1998/99, many of the cult’s followers grew disillusioned with their existence and, as stories surrounding Metcalf’s crimes arose, those including rape, adultery and assault, the sect’s foundations collapsed. While a number of the followers continued to live on the site (e.g. their onsite engineering company ‘Eagle Engineering’ still remains, owned by former members of the cult), fearing that another regime could be initiated behind the fortresses walls, approximately 68 (ironic) former members have used the New Zealand legal system to sell the lands and properties which have been valued at over $800,000. This figure, though, is a former estimate from the government, the price is said to have risen beyond $2 million. Most of the profits of the former regime have been offered to charity, and new residents have taken up residence in some parts of Camp David. Finally, it is worth noting that a number of the sect’s former members maintain that Metcalf was not a tyrant, nor a evilly inclined human, and that many of the rumours have been falsified owing to the fact that the sect was often stereotyped by wider society as being followed by ‘weirdos’ and ‘oddballs’.
Our Version of Events
As it turns out, the beginning of the week in Christchurch is actually rather busy, and the number of construction workers is incredible. Last time we were there the city was practically deserted – by day and night (excluding security guards in that calculation mind). At any rate, after setting off a couple of alarms, and sneaking our way around workers for an entire morning, we decided to try our luck somewhere else. Having heard about a notorious cult that existed outside of Christchurch, and with the knowledge that it had crumpled in recent years, we decided to pack up the tripods and see what was lurking out there. As things usually go, we managed to get a wee bit lost (understandable when you’re looking for a placeless place on a map that only shows you where existent places are) and passed through many small hamlets, where people somehow manage to survive; although I’m not entirely convinced that there is actually anyone out there, in any of the rickety houses we so often see; you never see any people in these ‘villages’. With some classic exploring luck, however, we finally found a medium-sized, but imposing, castle wall as we drove down a tiny road in the middle of nowhere. It was a scene you would normally expect to find in Disney Land, with a medieval touch. The usual drill ensued, but just as we were about to make our move – having anticipated that we wouldn’t meet anyone in the middle of nowhere – a car pulled slowly into the makeshift driveway that leads into the site. We pretended to loiter, looking as innocent as two people can in the wild lands of New Zealand, and I think we pulled it off because the newly arrived party didn’t even cast us a glance. Onwards!
Inside, the Disney Land feel is only intensified, as you walk around miniature pathways, all surrounded by a breezeblock castle wall. For the most part, the site is an absolute mess. Religious heroes? … They’re Greenpeace’s nightmare. Shit is everywhere! It looks like the bandits had to scram in a hurry. But, the site has many interesting things too, and each one uncovers itself if you take the time to look carefully around the site. We stumbled across various reminders that a cult presided there, as vehicles displayed their various emblems and cult name: St. John Volunteer Corps. Much evidence of the farm exists, and the pseudo-defence system Metcalf created still survives, made up of various cars, vans and container units. Many of these are buried under the ground; ready for the impending Communist attack it would seem. Many other things can be found, such as the drawbridge, a fire engine… I could go on, but if you have made it this far by now I expect you want to see some photographs. I’ll finish by saying that I could have stayed here for days, unearthing all of the hidden gems that exist; apparently some of the weapons are still hidden in the surrounding bush. Unfortunately, our excursion was cut short as the new residents in some of the houses suddenly became very active in their gardens. As much as we wanted to explore their newly acquired homes (many still look untouched and run down) – the former homes of the cult members themselves – we held back out of respect to those who now live there.
Explored with Nillskill.