The year was 2011 and my family and I were passing out religious tracts on a bridge that linked a college campus to the dorm buildings. I was shy on a good day, so it was difficult for me to find the courage to hand out the “good news.” But I pushed myself out of 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 us in the afterlife.
The “good news” we were handing out told people that they had a few months to live. It also contained a warning that if they didn’t believe that the world would end on May 21, 2011, they’d be 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 their classes to pay mind to the black family preaching about the end of days.
I don’t remember a time in my childhood where that date wasn’t lingering in the background of everything we did. The ever-looming presence of the end of days was easy to ignore at first. I’d get lost in a game or reading a book, drowning out any anxiety that tried to creep into my thoughts. But when the supposed date went from five years in the future to just a few months away, things started to feel dire.
On my knees, I prayed for forgiveness for all my sins. I prayed for God to take away my temper and my love of 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. 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.
His voice was strong, making his body look like the simple vessel it was, as he claimed: “This. Will. Happen.”
My family listened to Family Radio all day long. Christian music was white noise while we finished our school work. At night, the president of the station, Harold Camping, would host his own talk show where he took calls from all sorts of people. Some callers were terrified, others were skeptical, and others still were downright rude in their disapproval. Some called to yell at him for using God’s name as a co-signer on his lies. Others called concerned about the repercussions for those of us who claimed we knew the truth.
Harold Camping was an old man who, somewhat impressively, never used glasses to read Bible verses out loud from a couch in the middle of a homey-looking room. I’m sure it was a stage set. His chair seemed like it wanted to swallow him, and his large Bible, whole. His voice was strong, 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 soon eclipsed all other programs on the station. May 21, 2011, wasn’t Camping’s first time predicting God’s return, either. In 1992, he released 1994?, a book stating he was certain God would return in mid-September of that year. When the date passed, Camping went back to the drawing board. He used the New King James Bible and math as evidence for his many proclamations of the pending judgment day — later claiming the end of days to be October 2, 1994, and then again on March 31, 1995.
His other books circled around similar hardline evangelical themes such as the devout protection of the nation of Israel (because of its importance during the end times) and how all other churches should be abandoned because only Family Radio was preaching the truth. But he always returned to his favorite theme: the end of the world.
If the world ended in 2011, as Camping claimed, I assumed I would live to be 15 years old. I planned my life accordingly, changing my mindset to prepare for what life would be like post-apocalypse. Camping preached that only a certain number of people would be saved on judgment day and that no matter what we did, we couldn’t change who God would choose or who He decided to leave behind. My knees were sore from kneeling on our old, rough carpet. By the time May 1, 2011, rolled around I was eating, breathing, and sleeping the Bible and Family Radio.
What was supposed to be a rolling earthquake, followed by a rapture, turned out to be a simple overcast day.
Doomsday — May 21, 2011 — started like any other day in the outside world. In the living room, my family gathered 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 from 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 21 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 were confused, hurt, and angry. Some had taken out second mortgages, spent their life savings, and sold their belongings to donate to spreading the message of May 21. They paid for billboards in large cities and went on trips to foreign, rural places to share the news of the end of days.
I felt relief when the rapture didn’t occur. I was ashamed of that relief. But, deep down, I had an inkling that 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. Initially, Camping claimed there was an error in his calculations and that October 21 was the real end of days, but when. Eventually, in early 2012, he came forward with an apology. A certain subset of his followers has refused to accept his renouncement and continued what he started.
But what made people so fervent in their belief that the world was ending? I know I believed it because that’s how I was raised. I believed it because religion made me think everything about my existence was wrong. For my mom, her belief largely stemmed from 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’s predictions 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 midterm papers. They meant nothing to the students we handed them to, nor did they mean anything to the rest of the world. But, for those of us who believed, they meant everything.