The evening before had been spent with my hands cramped in the engine compartment of a VW Passat diesel late into the night, ending with a part we would have to find in the morning to get the job done. I was helping a friend, the same friend who had told me about Harold Camping and Family Radio just a few days earlier, Anthony L. of AtheistConnect. Anthony had been keeping up with them for some time before I’d heard about them. Back in my memory I recalled some previous mention, but certainly I had dismissed them like many other religious lunatics. After tracking down the car part in a city about an hour away we were off to purchase it. That is when he mentioned that one of the caravans was in Beaumont, a mere 4 hours from the part we were picking up. With a bit of laughter we decided that this would be a heck of a fun thing to go and do. After the ordeal with the car, and the fact that I can’t get any work done when people are over, why not. With that in mind we turned my truck the right direction, made phone calls trying to locate the caravan within the city, and began a four hour drive.
En-route we discussed back story. Anthony and I are charismatic people. We tend to fit in to diverse situations. I came from a family history of being very loosely to not religious. Anthony has a history that is his to tell you, but I can say he has experience within the depths of the deluded. We decided that we would fit in with the Missionaries. Anthony drew on his background, and I relied on my history of growing up around the world to bypass any curiosity about not fitting into the expected mold. A choice that would work out well.
On our radio was controversial celebrity Howard Stern. A man that I once held the same despise for as the people around me until I was asked to listen and given a free radio by a good friend. Always willing to open up to new things I listened. I liked it. Like anything I’m invited into, I wanted to learn more. I learned his history. I am now an ardent supporter of Stern and idolize him for what he has done for free speech. The irony hit me that this shunned man could be heard anywhere in the world that had a clear sky or Internet. As we grew closer to Beaumont we still had not received any return calls regarding the exact location of the caravan within the city. Surely the local Family Radio broadcast station would be airing updates, something their website was behind on. It was a mere 20 miles outside of the city that we were finally able to pick up the radio station, a contrast to the “filth” pouring down globally. No luck, only an old man reading the Bible with the occasional channel announcement of the call sign.
Arriving in Beaumont we decided they would be downtown somewhere and headed that way. A local contact suggested calling Channel 6 News to ask for help. They had heard that the caravan was in town but did not know its location. As we grew more worried that such a long drive was in vain we stopped so we could re-group. As I searched for downtown on a map a call came in. Anthony jumped in my truck to take the call; I knew who it must have been. An attempt earlier had landed us the cell phone number to the caravan leader, he must have received our message. A sudden rain forced me into the truck as I heard the end of the conversation. They would be waiting for us in our green truck. Surprise struck me. The plan had been to park the truck and walk to them. The Evolve Fish had to go. I jumped outside, tore it off the tailgate, and we were off, to Walgreens. We had driven by the very location about 5 minutes earlier and missed them parked for lunch.
Upon arriving they were quick to great and welcome us. A sentiment the Walgreens
manager didn’t reflect. While the caravans were just on lunch and not actively handing out literature, the manager spent some time eyeing them, obviously contemplating how to get them to leave. Quickly I caught on that they fit the stereotype of calling each other brother and sister and applying “god bless” as a period to their verbal sentences. This would be my in, I can mimic the parlance easily. To my surprise I found that they were genuine caring people but had the same uneasiness saying “God bless” and “amen” as I did. I speak against religion with every ounce of my non-existent soul. For what reason could they possible be so awkward with these phrases? Did they have doubt? Being friendly and welcoming to strangers was easy for all of us. Forcing ourselves to adhere to expectations about expressing reverence was hard on all of us. Hard in most cases, except for the woman we are calling Bea.
She was not the one to first welcome us, but was the fastest to pull us into her home (an RV doing god’s work) and involve us. What task did she have? Help her make a smoothie. She told us she isn’t very good with electronics and we were happy to spend time with her. I was happy to not be outside with these people, by the vehicles covered in their propaganda. Let’s be clear. I am not one to shy away from yelling my atheism at the top of my lungs in the middle of the Bible Belt. But to associate with these guys made me feel like I was hanging out with freaks. Yet I did not despise these people in any way. They were good people, one gentleman could have easily doubled for my grandfather. The others were caring and loving, doing their works to help man. Bea eventually told the story of her husband, which Anthony also reflected on. When Family Radio came on he, on his death bead in poor health, would rest peacefully at night. It became her routine to listen every night. To me, I saw the straw she grasped at.
The other key revelation from Bea came in talking about “Mr. Camping.” We knew they did not refer to him as reverend. But it was our place to first mention him in conversation
and we went with Harold. We were quickly returned in conversation with a thought on Mr. Camping. In my jest I said that his name “was spoke with the reverence of the lord,” but that statement could not have been more true. Bea lit up as she spoke of him, her smile filled her face. A smile we had seen a few times, as she was a very kind woman. This time it lingered, just a little bit longer, a little bit bigger, than it had before. I think Jesus did not mean as much to her as Mr. Camping, the man behind the sham, something that caught me off guard. I felt the safety of numbers when Anthony picked up the conversation, as I found my self caught without words.
I wish I could have more stories for the rest of them. Many times it is perceived miracles or “seeing” god or the divine in something that brings people to religions. I wondered if they all had stories of loss or woe that would make them want the end to be near. I also wondered why I felt these people were crazier than any others. Commonly I defend one religion against another. “Christians” criticize and laugh at Mormons. To me they are both no less ridiculous then Pastafarians. These are normal good Christians, who had put a time stamp on paperwork. Yet the world labels them as insane and dismisses them with hardly an ear to their tale. While we may have misrepresented background we were there to listen, to find out what they had to say for themselves.
After spending an hour and a half with them it was time for the caravan to go to work. By this point we had been given tee shirts which we had gladly donned to fit in. They wanted bumper stickers to be put on my truck. I love my truck. It is 11 years old, has 200,000 miles and drives like a champ. It looks beautiful. I had every reason not to put the bumper stickers on my truck and I would work as hard as I could to maintain the illusion that we belonged with them without putting them on my truck. But was I willing to in the end if I had to? Yes, but not for the illusion, for them. I had grown fond of our hosts and had no desire to be there when they questioned our intents. Our verbal prowess, combined with the fine coat of mud Texas tends to offer up on long road trips had protected us for now. Having somehow forgotten a memory card in my smaller camera (leaving us memory for only three pictures) I grabbed my professional camera from my back seat when we got in the truck. As Anthony told me he was OK with leaving, I snapped a handful of shots and then felt the urge to leave.
It had been hard for me maintaining our cover over the last half hour. In situations like that, where I care for the people, I want to talk. As much as they want to save me I want to save them. They had given up their home and their lives. The believed that their time had come and this was the best use of what they had left and needed nothing more. I felt sad and worried for these people and we could not do anything about it. When I left I took off fast. I wanted to leave that feeling behind as much as I did not want them to know our intentions of having been there. Would I face them today, yes. I would want them to read my reflections and know what I thought and why I came. I would want to try to save them. The ridicule they face is for nothing. The months spent working is for nothing. The homes and belongings they turned to cash and donated the cause was to line the pockets of a con-man. I want to be there on the 22nd to help pick them up when they fall down, just like they wanted to be there before the 21st to save me.