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In the end, rapture believers weren't going anywhere

To many who put stock in Harold Camping's prophecy about the end of the world, disillusionment was profound. It ended up being apocalypse … not.

May 22, 2011|By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
  • Keith and Kellie Bauer spent the week touring the country in anticipation of the rapture that Oakland preacher Harold Camping predicted would occur Saturday. Their son Joshua Bauer, 3, and relative Thomas Puff, 4, peer into the closed headquarters of Camping's Family Radio in Oakland.
Keith and Kellie Bauer spent the week touring the country in anticipation… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Sue Espinoza was planted before the television, awaiting news of her father's now infamous prediction: cataclysmic earthquakes auguring the end of humanity.

God's wrath was supposed to begin in New Zealand and then race across the globe, leaving millions of bodies wherever the clock struck 6 p.m. But the hours ticked by, and New Zealand survived. Time zone by time zone, the apocalypse failed to materialize.

On Saturday morning, Espinoza, 60, received a phone call from her father, Harold Camping, the 89-year-old Oakland preacher who has spent some $100 million — and countless hours on his radio and TV show — announcing May 21 as Judgment Day. "He just said, 'I'm a little bewildered that it didn't happen, but it's still May 21 [in the United States],'" Espinoza said, standing in the doorway of her Alameda home. "It's going to be May 21 from now until midnight."

But to others who put stock in Camping's prophecy, disillusionment was already profound by late morning. To them, it was clear the world and its woes would make it through the weekend.

Keith Bauer, a 38-year-old tractor-trailer driver from Westminster, Md., took last week off from work, packed his wife, young son and a relative in their SUV and crossed the country.

If it was his last week on Earth, he wanted to see parts of it he'd always heard about but missed, such as the Grand Canyon. With maxed-out credit cards and a growing mountain of bills, he said, the rapture would have been a relief.

On Saturday morning, Bauer was parked in front of the Oakland headquarters of Camping's Family Radio empire, half expecting to see an angry mob of disenchanted believers howling for the preacher's head. The office was closed, and the street was mostly deserted save for journalists.

Bauer said he was not bitter. "Worst-case scenario for me, I got to see the country," he said. "If I should be angry at anybody, it should be me."

Tom Evans, who acted as Camping's PR aide in recent months, took his family to Ohio to await the rapture. Early next week, he said, he would be returning to California.

"You can imagine we're pretty disappointed, but the word of God is still true," he said. "We obviously went too far, and that's something we need to learn from."

Despite the failure of Camping's prediction, however, he said he might continue working for him.

"As bad as it appears—and there's no getting around it, it is bad, flat-out—I have not found anything close to the faithfulness of Family Radio," he said.

Others had risked a lot more on Camping's prediction, quitting jobs, abandoning relationships, volunteering months of their time to spread the word. Matt Tuter, the longtime producer of Camping's radio and television call-in show, said Saturday that he expected there to be "a lot of angry people" as reality proved Camping wrong.

Tuter said Family Radio's AM station in Sacramento had been "severely vandalized" Friday night or Saturday morning, with air conditioning units yanked out and $25,000 worth of copper stripped from the equipment. He thinks it must have been an angry listener. He was off Saturday but planned to drive past the headquarters "and make sure nothing's burning."

Camping himself, who has given innumerable interviews in recent months, was staying out of sight Saturday. No one answered the door at his Alameda home, though neighbors said he was there.

By late afternoon, a small crowd had gathered in front of Camping's Oakland headquarters. There were atheists blowing up balloons in human form, which were released into the sky just after 6 p.m. in a mockery of the rapture. Someone played a CD of "The End" by the Doors, amid much laughter.

There were also Christians, like James Bynum, a 45-year-old deacon at Calvary Baptist Church in Milpitas, holding signs that declared Harold Camping a false prophet. He said he was there to comfort disillusioned believers.

"Harold Camping will never hand out poisoned Kool-Aid," Bynum said. "It's not that kind of a cult. But he has set up a system that will destroy some people's lives."

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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