May 21, 2011: A Portrait Of True Believers In The 'End Of The World'
HARRISON, N.J. -- Circled dates dot a calendar on John Ramsey's refrigerator door. They show the busy life of a 25-year-old: dinner parties, birthdays, holidays. But only until May 21.
Every month after May has been crossed out. As has all of 2012.
Ramsey is one of thousands of followers of a loose-knit Christian fringe movement whose members are increasingly found on sidewalks, in parks and at transit hubs in major cities throughout the United States.
They recite passages of the Bible line-by-line and say they have decoded a message for humanity: The world is about to end.
"God says when you see the sword come upon the land, you blow the trumpet and you warn the people," says Ramsey, paraphrasing Ezekiel 33:3. "All I'm doing is telling what I know."
Ramsey and the movement's followers say that at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, the ground will quake, graves will open and many of the dead will ascend to heaven. Two hundred million of the 'saved' -- dead or alive -- will float up. Those left behind will be doomed to live among blood, destruction and disease for five months before God annihilates the Earth on Oct. 21.
These warnings are drawn from the obscure and complex Biblical numerology of Harold Camping, an 89-year-old televangelist who owns Family Radio, a vast international network of Christian radio stations. Camping has been predicting 'The End' for the past two years. A similar prediction went unrealized in the mid-1990s.
His apocalyptic message has been broadcast via hundreds of billboards from Idaho to Manhattan and by a volunteer army of sign-toting, pamphlet-passing amateur preachers like Ramsey.
For most of his adulthood, Ramsey rarely stopped to consider the afterlife. Nights were for ecstasy-fueled rave parties, days were for catching up on sleep. There was the occasional college class, girlfriend or menial job -- most recently, at a catering company. The Bible was simply an old book collecting dust on his closet shelf in his parents’ house.
A soft-spoken 25-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, he favors bright polo shirts and tapered jeans -- garb not typically associated with doomsayers. But there are clues.
On a shelf in his living room rests a four-volume interlinear Bible with cross-references to the book's ancient Greek and Hebrew versions. He says most translations have corrupted the Bible, which followers read as God's literal word as well as a book of parables and symbolism. The best English translation, Ramsey says, is the King James version.
His pantry and fridge are half-empty after a final grocery store run last week. The family bought some of its usual staples: rice, steak, frozen pizza rolls, ribs, beans and corn flour for tortillas.
On a coffee table, he keeps a binder with a handwritten, 80-page timeline of the Bible. Part Biblical genealogy, part numerology, its charts and equations all point to May 21 as the long-awaited Rapture.
"Everybody says it is open to interpretation, but you have to compare scripture to scripture," Ramsey says of the Bible, alluding to 1 Corinthians 2:13 ("Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual").
Ramsey did not grow up in a religious household. Born in Ecuador and raised in North Carolina by an agnostic father and a mother who was once a Jehovah's Witness, he rarely went to church. As a teen, he "leaned atheist." Among his favorite courses in high school were chemistry and biology.
"For a while, I thought science was the answer to all my questions," he says. "But I always was fascinated in the stories in the Bible." He wondered whether they were real, and if so, what did they mean?
In college, he signed up for tourism engineering courses. The interest faded. Slowly, Ramsey says, he was "swept up" in the rave scene. He drank, got high, had one-night stands and traveled to electronic music festivals throughout South America in his spare time.
Four years ago, he met his wife. "I was in a parking lot after going out with friends," Ramsey says, "and we passed by this car of girls with one speaking in Ecuadorian Spanish."
It was rare to meet another Ecuadorian in the American South. Within a year, they married.
Ramsey was turning his life around. And, he had started going to church.
"Baptist, evangelical, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, I tried it all," he says.
None of the denominations struck him, but Ramsey came to a realization. He wanted to find God.
He got a hold of a King James Bible -- the same tattered and ink-stained one he points to today when talking about 'The End.'