Pastor’s followers get ready for doomsday, while atheists plan parties

Posted May 20, 2011, at 9:58 p.m.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Harold Camping’s promised final show Thursday night was much like his others. For an hour and a half, before a backdrop of wood paneling and fake plants in an Oakland studio, the self-styled scriptural scholar fielded calls from the devout, the derisive and the curious. He is 89 and bone-thin, making the leather-bound Bible on his lap seem enormous, and his voice was sl ow and unflappable.

Near the show’s end, Camping cut short a caller to announce that this would be his last appearance on the “Open Forum” TV and radio show he’s hosted for decades. After all, he explained with a warm smile, the world would be ending Saturday night.

Then he shook hands with a couple of crewmen. “I probably won’t see you again,” he announced. “I won’t be here again.”

The former engineer has long predicted the apocalypse, most famously in 1994, but his new date — May 21, 2011 — has received unprecedented publicity. That is thanks to a worldwide $100-million campaign of caravans and billboards, financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations.

It is impossible to say how many people take Camping seriously, though his message reaches millions of listeners and viewers on 66 stations across the country, and on many more worldwide. His prophecies have been mocked on late-night television and debated with derision on CNN. This weekend, atheist groups and other skeptics are planning doomsday parties across the country.

As for believers, many will be gathered quietly with their families, waiting for Jesus’ return. Among them is Tom Evans, 55, who has served as Camping’s public relations aide in the lead-up to this weekend. He has been counting down in his 2011 “At-A-Glance” calendar: Day 100, Day 99, Day 98….

In the book, Evans has noted his appointments over his expected last weeks on Earth, and a reminder of his daughter’s 3rd birthday. On May 21, he has written the words, “Have mercy Lord!” The rest of the book is blank.

The apocalypse will strike, Camping teaches, on May 21, wherever it happens to be 6 p.m. That means it will be Friday night in America when what Camping calls “super terrible” earthquakes will hit the New Zealand region.

The earthquakes will then roll on, time zone by time zone. The saved, perhaps 2 percent to 3 percent of the world population, will be whisked to God, while the rest will be obliterated in what he calls “a super horror story.”

Camping reads neither Hebrew nor Greek, the two main languages of the Bible, but insists his arithmetic is ironclad. He calculates that God gave humanity 7,000 years to prepare for its destiny, just as Noah had seven days to prepare for the flood, and that May 21 is the terminus of human history if one counts time by the Jewish calendar. There are other signs of the end, he teaches. Gay rights. The rebirth of Israel, and the Jewish state’s rejection of Jesus.

As it happens, at least two of Camping’s studio staff are Jewish — including his cameraman — and are among the many non-believers in his employ. The most outspoken in-house critic happens to be his longtime producer, Matt Tuter, 53, who believes Jesus will return some day but that it is a sin to presume to pinpoint a date.

“He leaves out numbers he doesn’t like,” Tuter said of Camping’s numerological analysis of the Bible. Tuter said he can no longer keep track of all the times Camping has predicted the end of the world.

Tuter thinks $100 million is a conservative figure for the money Camping has spent publicizing May 21. On Friday, employees at Family Radio headquarters in Oakland were given a paid day off, though some of them chuckled at the irony that the money would not appear in the paychecks until June.

Across the country, nonbelievers are throwing parties.

Among many other gatherings, the group American Atheists is hosting rapture parties in Wichita, Kan., and Houston and at a tiki bar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But its biggest event will be not far from Camping’s church — a two-day conference at the Oakland Masonic Center.

“We’re going to poke fun at these people, but in the end we need to keep in mind that there are people being hurt here,” said David Silverman, president of the New Jersey-based group. “We’re hoping people look at this and learn to use their brains … so we don’t have an occurrence of this in 2012” — when some believe the Mayas predicted the Earth’s demise.

On Facebook someone has created a page publicizing a “Pre-Rapture Orgy.” The location: “Streets of America, Baby.” As of midday Friday, more than 6,300 people had messaged that they were “attending.”

Camping has announced that he will spend Saturday with his family in Oakland.

But he has acknowledged that his preoccupation with the apocalypse has alienated him from many of the people he loves. “It’s so bad, most of my family I can’t even talk about it with,” Camping said.

Of his six living children, only one believes his message. “The grandkids aren’t around that much,” Tuter said. “I think Harold has a very sad life. I’ve been around him every day for 23 years. I do not envy his life.”

On Thursday night, just before Camping’s promised final appearance on “Open Forum,” he entered the studio agitated. He kept getting interview requests, and some reporters were turning to atheists to rebut his views. He was tired of it.

“Since they got rid of bin Laden, they don’t have anybody to focus on, so they focus on me,” Camping said. “I really am besieged. I’m public enemy No. 1 right now in the whole world.”

But he seemed to catch his stride as the show progressed. Some callers yelled at him. He seemed to grow calm amid their attacks. After his farewell to his listeners and viewers, after his quick goodbyes to his staff, he made his way to his car with his Bible under his arm.

It was so late, and so many people wanted his time. “I want to sneak out,” Camping said. “They’ll say, ‘Where is he? He disappeared in thin air.’”

Times staff writer Mike Anton contributed to this report.

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