Media Circus of Biblical Proportions at Armageddon HQ
The media has been in a tizzy over the Rapture predictions made by end-times prophet Harold Camping, whose followers expected to ascend to heaven after God destroyed the world on Saturday at 6pm. Mostly, it's just been a convenient excuse to bash Christians, even though the vast majority of Christians think Camping is a kook:
I suspect that the media feeding frenzy ... has less to do with an impulse to lampoon the ridiculous than an impulse to ridicule Christianity in general. Despite Camping and his followers being an extremely small fringe group, the media has covered this story as if the entire Southern Baptist church made this prediction. Stanley also concurs that this should be an extremely small story, not a dominating narrative, but also predicts that we’ve just seen the beginning of it. Come tomorrow morning, we’re going to see a deluge of snarky reports about the silly end-timers who got left behind — excuse me, Left Behind — which will all carry an unstated theme of “oh, those silly Christians and their silly beliefs!”
So, the media have a self-serving justification for turning a small story into front-page news. But they do have a big logistical problem with the Rapture: it has no locus, no “main stage” where the whole drama will play out. Instead, Camping’s followers are scattered one-by-one across the country, each waiting for Rapture or disappointment in private. So where can you as a reporter stand facing the camera with a meaningful backdrop to show you’re in the middle of the action?
Well, Oakland, California famously has "no there there," but it does have the only "there" for the Armageddon story -- the headquarters of "Family Radio," the Oakland studio where Camping records his radio shows which are then broadcast around the world. So I -- along with a veritable circus of pranksters and true believers -- decided to await the rapture at Armageddon HQ, the Family Radio offices on Hegenberger Road near the Oakland Airport. (Two other photographers also showed up and contributed their pictures to the report below.)
Turns out that neither Camping nor any of his followers were on hand, but that didn't diminish the completely ridiculous media circus that ensued -- a self-feeding fiasco that encapsulated the Armageddon-mockery frenzy we're witnessing on a wider scale across the country.
When I first showed up around 4pm, there wasn't a single soul around -- just two hours until the end of the world, and no one is at the headquarters of the group that predicted it? Weird.
I went up to the building, but even that was closed, and no one was inside. Wait -- did they say six p.m.? Or was that Eastern Standard Time? Was I already too late, the last person standing on earth?
I snapped a shot of the inside of the Family Radio office -- didn't seem like they had made any special preparations for Armageddon. What are those folders doing in the "In" box? Pending completion...when, exactly? (Later, a reporter told me that 80% [he was very specific about that -- 80%] of the Family Radio employees don't believe Harold Camping.)
But the desolation was only temporary. Soon, a procession of groups and individuals -- from the completely serious to the utterly absurd -- would show up and transform the parking lot into a media circus.
The first arrivals were the Calvary Bible Church, of Milpitas (a small city south of Oakland). They were disgusted by Camping's self-serving prophecies, and wanted to show that not all Christians were falling for this hoo-ha. Shortly afterwards, a Japanese journalist (seen here on the left) showed up and interviewed them.
The Milpitans said they were there to give counseling to any devastated Camping followers who might show up at the main office after the fizzled Rapture, and prevent them from committing suicide or losing their faith in God.
And from there, it was all downhill.
Next up was a covey of sarcastic hipsters who showed up to, well, just be on the scene. When interviewed by various reporters, they had no real explanation for their presence, other than to satiate their need for postmodern irony.
So they posed for souvenir photos in front of the Christian signs.
More professional jokers arrived a few minutes later: Bishop Joey, leader of a freelance comedy troupe known as the First Church of the Last Laugh, affixed a helium tank to a pole. Why?
To inflate love-dolls and twistable balloons made to look like little people, which were to be released at 6pm, to give the media a "visual" of souls ascending to heaven. Of course!
By this time, the television news crews were arriving in a continuous stream, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl. Here the ABC News reporter practices her "very serious" expression in preparation for the 5pm newscast.
And where there are cameras, there will also be attention-hounds. This duo announced that Gay Pride has successfully prevented Armageddon.
The leader positioned himself directly in front of the Milpitas Christians, since most camera crews were using them as a backdrop.
And they just kept coming. A small squad of sarcastic nihilists arrived with the now commonplace parody placards "This Is a Sign" and "Upside Down Sign." (I've seen these same jokes over and over at protests in recent years, and have always wondered: Are these people all part of the same specific group or trend, or do they somehow manage to come up with the same joke independent of each other?)
Right on their tails was a raucous group of young "scientists," with mockery-infused signs trumpeting science's superiority over religion. (Of course, it was quite apparent just from looking at them that not a single one of them knew the difference between a proton and a quasar; by "science," I presume they meant "secularism" or something along those lines.)
They paraded in a circle, trying to draw attention away from the nihilists, comedians, gays, Christians and hipsters.
When that didn't work, they turned on a loud boombox and started doing the spastic dance in front of the assembled camera crews. (I especially like the expression of the Christian woman on the far right, which seemed to hover somewhere between "You have got to be shitting me" and "God, please give me the patience to endure these juvenile asswipes!")
Our burgeoning five-ring circus became a six-ring circus when Santa Claus began encouraging everyone to "drink the Kool-Aid."
One by one, two by two, nuts, kooks and true believers of every stripe managed to find their way to Hegenberger Road as 6pm approached. Here we see a banjo player with a propeller beanie, who serenaded the crowd with his off-key rendition of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."
Someone handed out trillion-dollar bills that were so unbelievably well-made that they could easily pass for the real thing. Even the paper stock felt like real money. I don't want to get in trouble with the Secret Service for counterfeiting, so I purposely cropped off part of the bill.
(Hey, I have an idea: Maybe if I mailed 15 of these to the government, I could solve the federal deficit! Oh, wait, somebody already thought of that. Never mind.)
A man wearing a priestly cassock positioned himself in front of Camping's offices and began to pompously declaim in churchly Latin -- but who's going to take you seriously with pornographic love dolls drifting in the background?
Another guy showed up with a shirt that announced he was "Rapture Ready." Was he serious? Joking? After a while, I couldn't even tell any more.
A woman offered me a ticket to the afterlife.
I closed my eyes and chose one at random -- looks like my eventual destination is The Great Void, which seems pretty appropriate for an agnostic like me.
Off to the side, a guy carried a sign reading "Homosexuality is caused by child abuse." He and the Gay Rights dudes occasionally stared at each other warily, but luckily their paths never crossed.
By this stage, the whole scene was utterly surreal. Photographers began lining up across the street, and passing cars (most coming from the nearby airport) slowed down so people could snap pictures to show the folks back home. California never disappoints!
Bishop Joey held court in his Oakland A's-styled "Atheists" shirt, the perfect interview subject for the throngs of media crews looking for something to focus on.
Every now and then a helium-filled love-doll would escape and fly up to heaven prematurely. One can only imagine the chatter between the pilots of passing 747s and the airport control tower: "Roger, I have an unidentified flying sex toy off the port side. Please advise."
"This is Southwest Airlines flight 238. Spongebob Squarepants is ascending to heaven in our flight path. Abort landing?"
Someone put snarky signs (this being the most memorable) all over the parking lot.
One of the "scientists" repeated the same joke found in a million blog-comments over the last week.
As far as anyone could tell, there were no Camping followers on hand for the Milpitas Christians to console, so instead they formed a line on the roadside and consoled passing traffic.
As 6pm approached, the whole scene just descended into chaos. Everyone was everywhere with no rhyme or reason, cameras pointing every which way, trying to visually capture Armageddon somehow.
Yes, my son, this is what hell looks like.
The Christians seemed overwhelmed by it all, and retired to the back to the parking lot to have a group prayer huddle. The fact that they tried to do it out of the way where no one could see them -- the first non-performative act I'd seen in hours -- indicated to me that they were sincere, not just showing off.
Finally, 6 o'clock rolled around -- rather anti-climactically as it turned out, since various jokesters had been loudly yelling premature countdowns since at least 5:15, just to confuse everyone -- and the balloon-souls were released. Everyone looked skyward and cheered.
A prank had gone viral on Facebook earlier in the day: Place empty clothes on sidewalks around your neighborhood after 6pm, to indicate where "raptured" Christians had ascended bodily into heaven, leaving all worldly things -- including clothes -- behind. Someone apparently thought it was funny to surround Camping's office with these prank rapture outfits.
Or could it be -- some in the crowd really had gone "poof" at 6pm, and none of us noticed? If so: had they all been barefoot? Or do you walk around in heaven naked except for your shoes?
The media, grateful to finally have a visual to accompany their Rapture coverage, hung around for hours afterward interviewing anyone who would consent to go on camera.
The man who said the world was going to end appeared at his front door in Alameda a day later, very much alive but not so well.
"It has been a really tough weekend," said Harold Camping, the 89-year-old fundamentalist radio preacher who convinced hundreds of his followers that the rapture would occur on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Massive earthquakes would strike, he said. Believers would ascend to heaven and the rest would be left to wander a godforsaken planet until Oct. 21, when Camping promised a fiery end to the world.
But today, almost 18 hours after he thought he'd be in Heaven, there was Camping, "flabbergasted" in Alameda, wearing tan slacks, a tucked-in polo shirt and a light jacket.
Birds chirped. A gentle breeze blew. Across the street, neighbors focused on their yard work and the latest neighborhood gossip.
"I'm looking for answers," Camping said, adding that meant frequent prayer and consultations with friends.
"But now I have nothing else to say," he said, closing the door to his home. "I'll be back to work Monday and will say more then."