My family and I passed out tracts on a bridge that linked a college campus to the dorm buildings. I was shy on a good day, so handing out the “good news” was difficult for me to find the courage to do. I pushed myself out my shell because spreading the news was mandatory for all true believers. If I couldn’t share God’s plan, then I wasn’t worthy of whatever heaven had in store for our afterlife.
The good news told people they had a few months to live.
And if they didn’t believe in the date they’d get left behind to experience whatever punishment God saw fit. We handed our yellow and blue pamphlets to college students, who were too busy running to classes to pay mind to the black family preaching about the end of days.
I don’t remember a time in my childhood where the date wasn’t lingering in the background. Its ever-looming presence was easy to ignore at first. I’d get lost in playing a game or reading a book, drowning out any anxiety that tried to creep into my thoughts. But, when five years in the future turned into a few months, things started to seem dire.
On my knees, I prayed for forgiveness for all my sins. I prayed for God to take away my temper and love for steamy romance. I promised from that day forward I’d be His most obedient servant. First step? Ridding myself of all worldly literature. I choose Emma by Jane Austen to be the last non-Christian book I consumed. Halfway through the book, I gave up. I realized it was taking too much of my attention away from time I could spend reading the Bible.
I stopped writing a manuscript about a girl becoming an actress — something I’d obsessed over for years — because Hollywood was a cesspool of sinful desires. And I took up knitting because it was something I could do to keep my hands busy (idle minds and whatnot) while I listened to Family Radio.
My family would listen to Family Radio throughout the entire day.
The Christain music was white noise while we finished school work. At night, the president of the station, Harold Camping came on his talk show where he took calls from all sorts of people. Some individuals were terrified, skeptical, and downright rude in their disapproval. Some called to yell out him for spreading lies and using God’s name as a co-signer. Others called concerned for whatever repercussions would happen to those of us who claimed we knew the truth.
Camping was an old man who impressively never used glasses to read Bible verses out loud. He sat on a couch in the middle of a room decorated to look homey. I sure it was a stage set. His chair seemed like it wanted to swallow him and his large bible whole. There was strength in his voice, making his body look like the simple vessel it was, as he claimed,
“This. Will. Happen.”
Though Family Radio was a platform for many other preachers, Camping’s predictions eclipsed all other programs on the station.
2011 wasn’t his first cry of God’s return. He released a book entitled 1994?, stating he was certain God would return in mid-September of the year. When the date passed Camping went back to the drawing board. He used the New King James Bible and math to back his many proclamations of the pending judgment day.
I would live to be fifteen, I assumed. I planned accordingly by changing my mindset to what life would be like post-apocalypse. Camping noted that only a certain number of people would become saved. And no matter what we did we couldn’t change who God chose, and who He decided to leave behind. My knees were sore from kneeling on our old, rough carpet. By the time May 1st, 2011 rolled around I ate, breathed, and slept the Bible and Family Radio.
Doomsday started like any other day in the outside world. My family gathered in the living room to await our fate together. Our pallets littered the floor as we tried to find comfort in each other’s company. We kept the news on and my mom kept her laptop open, keeping track of the forum postings of other believers. We prayed and held our Bibles as though they were our golden tickets into heaven’s gates.
Other than a brief mocking segment on May 21st being the end of the world, the news stations didn’t report any signs of destruction. What was supposed to be a rolling earthquake, followed by a rapture, turned out to be a simple overcast day.
Months passed and no call to heaven happened.
People expressed their confusion, hurt, and anger. Some had taken out second mortgages, spent their life savings, and sold their belongings to donate to spreading the message of May 21st. They took out billboards in large cities and went on trips to foreign, rural places to share the date.
I felt relief when the rapture didn’t occur. I was ashamed of that relief. But, deep down I had an inkling if God was saving people from a list he made at the beginning of time, I probably wasn’t on it. For the next few months, everyone was in denial. Camping was silent before eventually coming forward with an apology. The certain subset of his followers refused to accept his renouncement and decided to continue what he started.
What made people so fervent in their belief that the world was ending? For me, it was because that’s how I was raised. I believed because religion made me think everything about my existence was wrong. For my mom, her belief could largely be attributed to her unsatisfying marriage. I’m curious about what was going through the mind of the other believers. Did they too want to escape something horrible in this life? I don’t think God or heaven were the only motivating factors. They needed an escape and Camping provided what seemed to be a sound one.
Those yellow and blue pamphlets we’d handed out to the students were undoubtedly forgotten. Buried in the garbage along with pizza boxes and mid-term papers. The meant nothing to them or to the rest of the world. But, for us who believed, it meant everything.