Another caller, a middle-aged woman with a trembling voice, asked for reassurance.
Caller: I’m having such a hard time because I don’t know how to interact with my family members. They’re taking me to doctors and thinking I’m out of my mind … They think that because I’m older, that I have Alzheimer’s or something.
Camping: Well, first of all, you must remember that God knows all about this; God predicted that this would happen … The Bible indicated that this would be the case that we would be shamed—
Caller: And alone. And, alone.
Caller: But that doesn’t matter to me.
Camping: That’s right, because you and I—
Caller: It doesn’t matter—
Camping: Remember, you and I are only answering to God.
The evening of June 10, Camping signed off, clutching his giant Bible, and teetered, sticklike, to his eighties Toyota Camry. He drove out the Family Radio parking lot, past the sign on the sidewalk for “clairvoyance” at the psychic shop a few doors down, and towards Alameda. His house is large and attractive, though showing its age; Shirley would certainly have replaced the fraying curtains in the living room had her husband not convinced her of the profound mootness of doing so. At the dinner table, they bowed their heads; Camping had long disparaged the need for any formal mealtime prayer, opting instead for the simple “Dear Lord, thank you for this food.” Then he picked up his fork.
As Camping was eating, God entered his body—for it would have to have been this way, there was no other possibility—coalescing several cells into a tiny clot of lipids that traveled through his bloodstream by the beating of his heart to a narrow bend in a tiny vessel in his brain. As Shirley stood by him in the dining room, the ambulance en route, inside his skull, God began suffocating Camping’s brain cells.
In the emergency room, his family prayed; were Camping able to communicate with them at that moment, he undoubtedly would have instructed them of the appropriate prayer, which was not for his survival but for His will to be done. Camping’s doctor appeared before them with the results of the CT scan. Camping had suffered a stroke. His prognosis was unclear.
It seemed possible that Harold Camping would not make it to the end.
On a recent Sunday morning, I drove to Veterans Memorial Building in Alameda. The events of May 21, followed by Camping’s stroke, had left a deep void inside the fellowship as well as inside Family Radio, and for a while it was not clear whether either would survive. There had been, apparently, tremendous debate within the company over whether to continue publicizing the October 21 deadline, with a sizable contingent opposed; over time, however, especially as Camping had held on, the official Family Radio position became that the date stood, that Family Radio’s mission was accomplished, that there was no more salvation to be wrung after May 21, and so there would be no more discussion. As far as “Open Forum” was concerned, rebroadcasts would give way to new programming: Camping was retired.
And while most in the fellowship—and presumably most in his worldwide followers—had found themselves profoundly lost after May 21, unsure of whom to believe or what to do, the most faithful among them were steadily returning to the flock. These included the few dozen sipping coffee from paper cups in folding metal chairs inside Veterans Memorial Building—different ages and races, some alone and others with family, all of them well dressed and smiling. A mustachioed man rose to offer the Bible lesson. He was short and cartoonish, wearing a suit ripped from a seventies exhibit at the Smithsonian, and he grinned absurdly as he talked, with a slight Mexican accent, about Noah and the 7,000 years, about what it meant that “we are still here,” about the illusion that “things are A-OK” and the reality that “we’re on track, everything is moving according to God’s plan” for October 21, when “He will destroy all this, it will all be done, the verdict for them will be guilty.” I looked around the hall as he spoke: Two young girls in floral-print dresses were drawing pictures with markers; a boy of about 9 sat next to his goateed father, dressed in jeans and a hunting T-shirt, the two of them pinching each other and stealing quiet giggles. When it came time to pray—for “the meek who shall inherit the earth” and “our loved ones that are not saved, who will die forever”—both abruptly looked down solemnly, covering their faces with their fingers.
By now the fellowship was cautious of outsiders. After the service, I approached the woman who’d been playing the piano as they’d sung hymns earlier. She hesitated to acknowledge that she was Camping’s daughter, Sue Espinoza; it was her first time back at the fellowship since before May 21. Her father, she told me, was weak but recovering better than expected—just a few days earlier, he’d returned home, in fact, for continued physical therapy. He’d told his family that God had used him to spread His message and he’d done that—he’d warned the world—and so his work was done and God silenced him.” She said he remained utterly convinced of the October 21 deadline, as did she, but as she parroted her father’s language—the spiritual Rapture had commenced, God was merciful, the end was coming—I got the impression that, like the Bible study I’d just listened to, much of it was perfunctory.