A brief run-in with Harold Camping’s crew.
I first heard about Harold Camping and his nonprofit radio station, Family Radio, when I was an editor at my college newspaper last March. It was a week before spring break, and the news staff and I were brainstorming ideas for an info-graphic for the next issue: “What To Watch Out For During Spring Break.”
We had the basics written down—bad weather, dangerous destinations to avoid—but were struggling to come up with something unique, or completely bizarre, that students could keep an eye out for during the upcoming week of travel.
“What about those End of the World-preaching caravans?” someone chimed in. “The group that’s saying Judgment Day is May 21?”
My ears perked up; I hadn’t heard of this group before. And from the sound of it, they were just what we were hoping to find for the info-graphic.
A quick Google search revealed that the caravans were part of Family Radio, an Oakland-based Christian nonprofit network headed by 90-year-old preacher Harold Camping.
Camping’s bizarre interpretations of the Bible led him to believe a Rapture would occur on May 21, during which 200mn people would be saved over the course of five months (roughly 2.8% of the world’s population); the rest would suffer a hell-like storm until, on October 21, the final “judgment” happened.
This wasn’t the first time Camping had pulled the doom card. In 1994, he incorrectly predicted a similar type of Rapture. Now, however, he was positive; so much, in fact, that he had gathered thousands of his most devout followers to caravan the country and spread the message. Ad spaces were purchased at bus stops and on billboards in large metropolitan areas, claiming the end was near.
This is perfect for the graphic, we thought. The Family Radio website had meticulously mapped out the dates and places their vans would be—the majority being in larger cities and popular, southern spring break destinations like Florida or Texas. The graphic was published.
We were surprised, then, when a black bus—with the “Judgment Day: 2011” message ascribed on its side—rolled into our campus parking lot in Wisconsin a few weeks later.
Some friends and I from the newspaper made our way over to snap a few pictures of the van for the next issue. One of the members approached us. Our meeting was brief, and I can’t remember his name; but for the sake of this article, I’ll call him “Jeff”.
The group was indeed from Family Radio, Jeff said, and was halfway through their road trip across the country. They stood in front of their bus, motionless, with matching shirts and literature in hand.
Legally, they couldn’t hand us the pamphlets on campus property, he said, but he had placed a stack of them on the sidewalk across the street if we were interested.
“That’s OK,” I told him, “we’re just here to get a few pictures.”
Jeff understood. He was used to rejection. The purpose of his journey, he told us, was only to “get the word out.” He hadn’t anticipated a lot of positive reception from the start; he just wanted to make it clear to whoever would hear him, in the nicest way possible, that unimaginable torture by the hand of God was on its way—and fast. How thoughtful.
The strangest thing about Jeff, though, was the way he appeared so … normal. Sure, his acid-washed jeans and white Velcro sneakers may have been a few decades out of style, but the overall attitude that he and the rest of his team projected wasn’t gloomy at all—it was actually kind of cheery. He smiled as he talked to me about the “awesome” news that I, along with the rest of the world, would soon be burning alive in an apocalyptic super-storm of volcanic eruptions, Biblical plagues and fire-spewing earthquakes—all in a completely, almost unnervingly, casual tone of voice. No megaphone-powered chants; no standing on soapboxes.
Based on attitude alone, he might as well have been reminiscing about last week’s Oakland A’s game or the mahogany-colored kitchen tiles he and his wife had just picked up at Home Depot.
After my team and I got a few pictures of the bus, Jeff became nervous. Word had spread that the Dean had heard about Jeff and his family’s presence in the parking lot, and campus police were on their way.
My friends and I said our goodbyes and headed back to the office.
May 21, of course, came and went. The initial response to the media from Family Radio was slow. They had, after all, just spent millions of dollars in advertising and campaigning something that never happened. The morning of May 22 was probably the one time they didn’t want to wake up to a non-apocalyptic world.
After a few days of silence, Camping came public again to say his math was wrong: October 21 was the real Judgment Day. Nobody seemed to care. Family Radio’s fame was up; the campaigns and billboards had been amusing at first, but at this point, it was just getting annoying. And once the world continued to turn on October 22—strike three—Camping and his crew stayed silent.
Last week, on March 9, Camping officially announced on Family Radio’s website the end of his doom-saying predictions, admitting that he had no evidence all along of an impending Judgment Day.
Jeff and the other thousands he had convinced to campaign the country, many of who had quit their jobs or thrown their savings towards funding the cause, were forced to the realization that their time and money had gone to waste.
“We humbly acknowledge we were wrong,” Camping said in a statement. “We must … openly acknowledge that we have no new evidence pointing to another date for the end of the world.”
And another one bites the dust.
Obviously, the case of Family Radio differs from traditional eschatological cries. The classic “2012 phenomenon,” spawning from the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar’s ending of the current, or fourth, world, places the last day on December 21, 2012. (For more on this, see the contributing pieces at the sidebar on this topic).
Regardless, the doom-crier gig has long been a moneymaker in popular culture. Countless television specials, movies, books and even, ahem, articles have been—and continue to be—produced and written about the topic. The fantastical nature of it all makes it extra eye-grabbing; when things go wrong, like the recent sweep of natural disasters or the continuous struggle of the economy, they’re used as justification, or signs, of what’s to come.
And maybe that’s part of the reason why folks get drawn in. Impressionable people like Jeff, looking for a cause, absorb the media coverage, movies and prophecies enough to alter their perspectives.
To those from Family Radio who quit their jobs and school, or spent their worth on the May 21 campaign, the resulting embarrassment—in conjunction with the emotional and financial blows—was a lot to recuperate from. Sure, it’s amusing from an outsider’s perspective; but getting wrapped up in a fake prophecy—especially one this extreme—has the potential to really push people over the edge. Thankfully, the only real harm I’m aware of from this was done to the contributor’s wallets.
At least, for now, Camping’s antics have simmered. His followers, too, have seemed to acknowledge their mistake—that following a 90-year-old doomsayer with a history of being wrong might not have been the best decision.
One down; more wolfs to cry.
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