Apocalypse believers wait vigilantly for the end after months of preparing; skeptics carry on
By Associated Press, Published: May 21 | Updated: Sunday, May 22, 12:08 AM
OAKLAND, Calif. — They spent months warning the world of the apocalypse, some giving away earthly belongings or draining their savings accounts. And so they waited, vigilantly, on Saturday for the appointed hour to arrive.
When 6 p.m. came and went across the United States and various spots around the globe, and no extraordinary cataclysm occurred, some believers expressed confusion, while others reassured each of their faith. Still, some others took it in stride.
“I had some skepticism but I was trying to push the skepticism away because I believe in God,” said Keith Bauer — who hopped in his minivan in Maryland and drove his family 3,000 miles to California for the Rapture.
He started his day in the bright morning sun outside the gated Oakland headquarters of Family Radio International, whose founder, Harold Camping, has been broadcasting the apocalyptic prediction for years.
“I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth,” said Bauer, a tractor-trailer driver who began the voyage west last week, figuring that if he “worked last week, I wouldn’t have gotten paid anyway, if the Rapture did happen.”
The May 21 doomsday message was sent far and wide via broadcasts and websites by Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer who has built a multi-million-dollar Christian media empire that publicizes his apocalyptic prediction. According to Camping, the destruction was likely to have begun its worldwide march as it became 6 p.m. in the various time zones, although some believers said Saturday the exact timing was never written in stone.
In New York’s Times Square, Robert Fitzpatrick, of Staten Island, said he was surprised when the six o’clock hour simply came and went. He had spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world.
“I can’t tell you what I feel right now,” he said, surrounded by tourists. “Obviously, I haven’t understood it correctly because we’re still here.”
Many followers said the delay was a further test from God to persevere in their faith.
“It’s still May 21 and God’s going to bring it,” said Family Radio’s special projects coordinator Michael Garcia, who spent Saturday morning praying and drinking two last cups of coffee with his wife at home in Alameda. “When you say something and it doesn’t happen, your pride is what’s hurt. But who needs pride? God said he resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.”
The Internet was alive with discussion, humorous or not, about the end of the world and its apparent failure to occur on cue. Many tweets declared Camping’s prediction a dud or shared, tongue-in-cheek, their relief at not having to do weekend chores or take a shower.
The top trends on Twitter at midday included, at No. 1, “endofworldconfessions,” followed by “myraptureplaylist.”
As 6 p.m. approached in California, some 100 people gathered outside Family Radio International headquarters in Oakland, although it appeared none of the believers of the prophecy were among them. Camping’s radio stations, TV channels, satellite broadcasts and website are controlled from a modest building sandwiched between an auto shop and a palm reader’s business.
Christian leaders from across the spectrum widely dismissed the prophecy, and members of a local church concerned followers could slip into a deep depression come Sunday were part of the crowd outside Family Radio International. They held signs declaring Camping a false prophet as motorists drove by.
“The cold, hard reality is going to hit them that they did this, and it was false and they basically emptied out everything to follow a false teacher,” the Rev. Jacob Denys, of the Milpitas-based Calvary Bible Church, said earlier. “We’re not all about doom and gloom. Our message is a message of salvation and of hope.”
About a dozen people in a partying mood were also outside Family Radio International, creating a carnival-like atmosphere as they strolled in a variety costumes that portrayed monks, Jesus Christ and other figures.
“Am I relieved? Yeah. I’ve got a lot going on,” Peter Erwin, a student from Oakland, said, with a hint of sarcasm. “Trying to get specific about the end of the world is crazy.”
Revelers counted down the seconds before the anticipated hour, and people began dancing to music as the clock struck 6 p.m. Some released shoe-shaped helium balloons into the sky in an apparent reference to the Rapture.
Camping has preached that some 200 million people would be saved, and that those left behind would die in a series of scourges visiting Earth until the globe is consumed by a fireball on Oct. 21.
Family Radio International’s message has been broadcast in 61 languages. He has said that his earlier apocalyptic prediction in 1994 didn’t come true because of a mathematical error.
“I’m not embarrassed about it. It was just the fact that it was premature,” he told The Associated Press last month. But this time, he said, “there is … no possibility that it will not happen.”
As Saturday drew nearer, followers reported that donations grew, allowing Family Radio to spend millions on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with the doomsday message. In 2009, the nonprofit reported in IRS filings that it received $18.3 million in donations, and had assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.
Marie Exley, who helped put up apocalypse-themed billboards in Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, said the money allowed the nonprofit to reach as many souls as possible.
She said she and her husband, mother and brother read the Bible and stayed close to the television news on Friday night awaiting word of an earthquake in the southern hemisphere. When that did not happen, she said fellow believers began reaching out to reassure one another of their faith.
“Some people were saying it was going to be an earthquake at that specific time in New Zealand and be a rolling judgment, but God is keeping us in our place and saying you may know the day but you don’t know the hour,” she said Saturday, speaking from Bozeman, Mont. “The day is not over, it’s just the morning, and we have to endure until the end.”
On Sunday, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck near a group of South Pacific islands about 600 miles off New Zealand, but there were no reports of damage or risk of tsunami. The temblor struck under the Kermadec Islands, which has no permanent population.
New Zealand, shaken by a series of quakes and aftershocks since a Feb. 22 temblor devastated the city of Christchurch and killed 181 people, sits in an area where two tectonic plates collide. More than 14,000 earthquakes are recorded in New Zealand each year.
A much smaller earthquake also was recorded at 7:05 p.m. Saturday in the San Francisco Bay Area, a seismically active region of California that includes Oakland. There were no reports that the minor magnitude 3.6 temblor, centered 8 miles north of Berkeley, caused damages or injuries.
Camping, who lives few miles from his radio station, was not home late morning Saturday, and an additional attempt to seek comment from him late in the evening also was unsuccessful, with no one answering his front door.
Earlier in the day, Sheila Doan, 65, Camping’s next-door-neighbor of 40 years, was outside gardening and said the worldwide spotlight on his May 21 forecast has attracted far more attention than the 1994 prediction.
Doan said she is a Christian and while she respects her neighbor, she doesn’t share his views.
“I wouldn’t consider Mr. Camping a close friend and wouldn’t have him over for dinner or anything, but if he needs anything, we are there for him,” Doan said.
Associated Press reporters Terry Chea in Oakland, Don Babwin in Chicago, Mike Householder in Detroit, Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans, David R. Martin in New York and video journalist Haven Daley in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Garance Burke can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/garanceburke.