While reporting this week’s column, I was faced with a dilemma: I would be writing a story that at its core was about something fundamentally not true.
I went inside the Oakland headquarters of Family Radio, which has gained worldwide attention for its prediction that the biblical apocalypse (yup, the one from Revelations) would hit Earth on May 21, 2011.
As you’re reading this posting, May 21 has arrived somewhere on the planet. Everyone still here? Hmmm. I guess that means the prophesy of evangelist Harold Camping is false. (Note: there have been some recent inconsistencies by Family Radio on the exact arrival time of the rapture.)
I was not worried that my story would give the prophecy credibility by being mentioned in the mainstream media — my column would run too late to be responsible for more people giving up their hard-earned money to support this.
Most of my colleagues in the media dealt with the inherent quandary of the story by ridiculing Camping and his followers. It’s the stuff late night comedians live for.
But what most journalists, bloggers and pundits did not do was actually visit the ministry and meet these folks face to face.
For me, that made the story something other than a joke.
I met people who were clearly wound up about this. One man was nearly manic. He spoke about putting his safety at risk during a recent trip to Vietnam and Laos to distribute pamphlets (they call them “stacks”) with the message of May 21’s doom translated into local languages. He said the authorities detained him — they apparently did not appreciate this type of missionary work.
I thought: what’s going to happen to this guy when May 22 actually arrives? It will be a betrayal on a emotional scale that’s difficult to fathom.
Then there’s Tom Evans, a ministry spokesman. He’s been with Camping since 1988. Evans said it has been a personal financial struggle for many years, since the ministry pays meager wages.
I don’t know if Evans was being truthful with me, but IRS records and an analysis by Charity Navigator, the watchdog group, seem indicate that most Family Radio workers have received very modest compensation — donations made for the May 21 alert appear to have been spent on the message, not Jim-and-Tammy-Faye lavish lifestyles for all the staff. An investigation by CNN estimated the average annual salary of Family Radio employees is just $23,000.
So what were all those years of personal sacrifice about? Evans, who started a family in his late 40s, has two small children to support. Now what?
There were other details that raised concerns when I visited the Family Radio headquarters on Monday:
- The place was filthy. If you really believed the end was near, would you waste time vacuuming?
- Camping’s prophecy has no wiggle room. He spoke in such great detail of earthquakes and Armageddon, there will be no way to fudge it after the fact in a way that will let ardent followers down easily.
- Employees were still using a punch clock on Monday, taking note of the hours they worked. At first I thought, "Ah ha, that proves they don’t really believe." Why punch the clock for a paycheck that will never come? But staffers explained to me that they were sticking to their routines as a way to pass the time until the end.
Then there was a moment that made me freeze. As Camping finished a call-in broadcast, I went to leave. I couldn’t. I was locked inside the compound, surrounded by a high security fence. There was no emergency exit door. No button to push to open the gate. No escape.
I thought to myself, What if this was sinister? Is this the last story I’ll ever cover?
After a few minutes I was able to find someone with a key card to swipe the security system and let me out. I laughed at myself: My imagination had gotten the best of me. It’s not unusual for a broadcast center to have security that manages people's coming and going.
But that fact that I was rattled, even if just for an instant, made me realize that I should not treat all of this as a joke. Some people have taken the promise of the apocalypse quite seriously, and there will be consequences.
At the very least, there’s the money. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent promoting May 21 — money that could have gone to housing, care or sustenance for the needy, the traditional purviews of Christian giving.
The more you think of this, the less funny it gets.
Here's a video from my visit to Family Radio's headquarters: