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After all the worshippers took their seats, the service began with the Doxology. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all people here below ..."
A thin, grave man in his thirties took the stage and the room went silent. "We have a few announcements," he said. "The Kim family has had a birth." He then went on to describe the length and weight of the child, and time of delivery. His announcement was met with joyless silence. As the service commenced, a few traditional hymns were sung, the Ten Commandments given a cursory study, and a prayer made for the unsaved. Apart from the pleasant gurgles of an infant in the back, nary an outburst, laugh, or clap could be heard from this congregation.
No great surprise, really; like many an old-fashioned Calvinist sermon, the emphasis was on eternal damnation, the wrath of God, and the necessity of turning away from apostate churches that were "murdering" their congregations through false teachings. The sermon was delivered in a monotone by a speaker whose rote, mechanical-yet-rambling teaching jumped from book to book and verse to verse -- each listener in the audience shuffling through the crisp, thin pages of the Good Book in unison. Even the most faithful found themselves shifting in their seats after an hour, trying perhaps to get blood to the part of the brain that had initially taken interest.
The less faithful went outside for a smoke.
"I come here because my husband likes it," a Hispanic woman out front said under her breath so as not to be overheard. "I love Jesus, and I love church. ... I don't like his stance on church."
Her husband had started coming to the Bible Fellowship after listening to Family Radio, something he does "for the whole time he's awake," the woman said.
Once she realized she was talking to a reporter, her eyes lit up. "Maybe you can tell me," she said, leaning in close. "I heard that a few years ago, Mr. Camping went to a mountain with some people to wait for the end of the world. Is this true? My husband refuses to believe it."
As she was speaking, the parishioners began to file out, Harold Camping among them. He outstretched his hand with a warm smile, and continued to shake even after learning whom he was talking to. "Oh, yes, I got your message," he said kindly. "I don't want to talk to the press, I'm sorry. All of my ideas and opinions are right there in my books and on my show."
Camping seemed conciliatory, and after the fallout of 1994, it's no surprise that he'd want to avoid the secular press. Yet his dodging of interviews has also given his enemies more fodder. They accuse him of avoiding ever having to defend his positions. In their view, Harold Camping answers to no one, and likes it that way.
After the service, newcomers were encouraged to come down to the basement for a free lunch. At the end of one table an elderly black couple sat close, sharing a sub they'd brought along with some potato salad. They were among the few who had seemed to be listening intently to the earlier sermon, and in fact commute from Sacramento every Sunday to attend the meetings. They left their Baptist church of thirty years to join Camping's flock more than a decade ago. "There was too much focus on raucous music and fun; there was not enough emphasis on God's wrath," said the woman, who along with her husband asked not to be identified due to the "negative bias" of the media toward their fellowship.
But what of Camping's stance that Family Radio is the only true church? "He is not saying that," the man said. "He is saying, if Family Radio is God's word, then it will survive." And therein lies the problem with other churches, he added: They don't read the Bible correctly. To those who would attack Harold Camping, the man had one thing to say: "The main issue is that if you can kill the messenger, then you really don't have to listen to the message."
Like the man at the fellowship, David Morrell has been frustrated with the controversy surrounding Harold Camping. A retired Philadelphia cop, Morrell has been the unpaid vice president of Family Radio for many years, and now travels the world setting up missions for the nonprofit. Camping, in his view, is "a sweet, nice person" whom God chose as an instrument to build up the radio ministry. "Everybody's got to follow what they believe, Kate," he says in his thick Philly accent. "That's the nature of a person that's sincere about his faith. Everybody has to follow what he feels is indeed the truth."
Seven Days - January 19, 10:45 AM
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