Inside the sprawling, threadbare Oakland headquarters of Family Radio Worldwide, the staff has prepared for the end of the world this weekend — and it appears they mean it.
“There’s so little time left,” a smiling elderly woman said, hugging a colleague.
On Monday, the last day outsiders were welcome inside the gated compound, recording studios sat empty. Current programming for the independent Christian broadcast ministry was produced weeks ago. No more shows are needed.
This Saturday, May 21, is the apocalypse, according to the ministry’s charismatic leader, “brother” Harold Camping.
“I’m so glad that God’s in charge,” Camping, 89, said, looking gleeful.
Camping, a 1942 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who started out in Christian broadcasting in 1958 with one San Francisco AM radio station that eventually became a broadcast empire, proclaimed the doomsday date in 2008.
Since then, the ministry has unleashed a giant effort to spread the word. The message has gone out over the ministry’s 216 AM, FM and low-power radio stations, plus two TV channels in the United States. And, there’s been an international effort with shortwave radio, satellite broadcasts, a website, 5,500 billboards (400 in India; 2,200 across the United States, including many around the Bay Area), and 100 million pamphlets in 61 languages, according to the ministry.
Camping oversees about 100 staff members and volunteers, a mix of ages and races, at the ministry’s unkempt Oakland headquarters, situated between a custom auto shop and a psychic near the Oakland airport.
The ministry’s finances, however, are anything but downscale: an annual budget of $36.7 million in 2009, according to the organization’s most recent IRS financial disclosure filings. As a nonprofit, commercial-free broadcasting operation, the ministry is supported by listener donations — $18.3 million in 2009 alone.
The IRS records revealed $34 million in investments, $56 million in assets and $29 million in mortgages. Camping received no salary in 2009 — in fact, he loaned the ministry $175,516 that year. On Monday he said he was draining ministry reserves to pay for the May 21 campaign.
Tom Evans, a ministry spokesman, wouldn’t make the budget available, but said it was in the “tens of millions” of dollars.
Camping previously prophesied the apocalypse for September 1994 — a calculation he now admits was flawed.
Then and now, his predictions have received both worldwide attention and ridicule. Christian scholars, almost uniformly, say the Bible forbids such prophecies. Richard Dawkins, the atheist writer, has labeled the millions spent a “con” and Camping a “raving loon.”
At Family Radio headquarters, however, Camping’s followers expressed sincere devotion. People spoke of spending their final days with loved ones, or trying to maintain their normal routines until Saturday.
“I’m just doing, you know, everything exactly the way I always do it,” Robert Boyd, a radio producer, said.
“Let God end it,” Evans said.
Camping, whose ministry is fundamentalist Christian but not affiliated with mainstream churches, described Saturday as the beginning of five months of hell on earth: the Rapture. Beginning by time zone until the world is encompassed, the relative few saved by God will ascend to heaven, while seven billion will be left to suffer and die.
Devastating earthquakes will strike, he said, unearthing corpses of previously dead sinners to be “desecrated and shamed,” followed by a series of calamities until Oct. 21, when the planet will be obliterated.
Camping said that Saturday is the 7,000th anniversary of Noah’s flood. Once again, he said, God has been angered by mankind’s sins, like the growing acceptance of homosexuality.
Jay Johnson, a professor at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union who has studied doomsday religious sects, said such beliefs tend to coincide with times of strife or change and “sometimes have troubling consequences.”
A similar end-of-days movement, Millerism, in the 19th century — a tumultuous time due to immigration, abolitionism and women’s rights — eventually spawned the murderous Branch Davidian cult, Johnson said.
“This is not a laughing matter when people engage wholesale in one interpretation of biblical text,” Johnson said.
Working-class people have reportedly liquidated bank accounts to support Family Radio’s campaign. On Monday, during a ministry call-in talk show, a man said he intended to go to work this week and proselytize colleagues about May 21, knowing he would probably be fired.
Such deeds have ramifications — should Sunday come. While Camping refuses to consider that possibility, others close to the ministry do.
Zeke Piestrup, an outside documentary maker working with the ministry, said, “I’m a little nervous for these people.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.