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For Rapture believers in Pasco, a humbling dose of reality

WESLEY CHAPEL — All around the world, all day on Saturday, people mocked perplexed believers who watched and waited for the end that never came.

There were supposed to be rolling global earthquakes, followed by the Rapture of believers everywhere at 6 in the evening, followed by five months of unimaginable torment for those left behind, followed finally by the total destruction of the planet.

Psychologists worried about how believers would handle their disappointment and shaken emotional states.

Here in central Pasco County off State Road 54 sits a gated neighborhood with carefully cut rectangles of green grass and clean concrete driveways. In that neighborhood on a corner lot sits a big tan house with a beautiful wraparound porch. Inside that house on Saturday were people who believed.

And outside that house, in the late afternoon, as the clock ticked toward 6, four sheriff's cars pulled up.

• • •

This happened because of an old man in Oakland, Calif., named Harold Camping. He is the evangelical owner of a conservative Christian radio network called Family Radio. The former honors student at the University of California at Berkeley started the network in 1958 and predicted the end of the world once before, on Sept. 6, 1994. When that date didn't work, he came up with another: May 21, 2011. This time, he told reporters, "there is no possibility that it will not happen."

Lori Hodge believed him.

"One hundred percent, with all my heart," she said three weeks ago. "I have no doubt whatsoever."

Lori is 36. She votes Republican and used to cut hair. Her husband, Greg, is 41. He's a carpenter and runs a lawn service out of his gray Ford pickup. He believed. Her parents live not far, and they believed, too. Her children are 2 and 4. The 2-year-old is too young to understand, but her 4-year-old, she said, was excited to get to go to heaven.

Not everybody in her family believed. Not her aunts, not her uncles, not her cousins, not her husband's parents. They didn't want to hear it. That wasn't unusual. The question of belief in May 21 caused great tensions in many families.

• • •

In the years, months and weeks leading up to Saturday, believers prepared for the end. They quit jobs. They dropped out of college. They spent a lot of time on the Internet, on sites like eBibleFellowship.com, WeCanKnow.com and FamilyRadio.com. They studied their Bibles. They sent their savings to Family Radio, which over the past seven years took in more than $100 million in listeners' donations, according to employees, to help pay for printed pamphlets and more than 5,000 billboards with Judgment Day warnings.

The Bible says to "sound the trumpets." And so Lori did.

She posted about almost nothing else on her Facebook page. She lost friends who didn't believe. She gained friends who did. "I feel like the Lord has definitely used Facebook to draw us together," she said. She bought vinyl signs from WeCanKnow.com and put them on the rear window of her car and drove around hoping people would see. She sent money to Family Radio.

Two weeks ago, she went down to Tampa, where she stood on a street corner wearing flip-flops, capri jeans, silver hoop earrings and a black T-shirt that said RAPTURE. She gave pamphlets, or "tracts," as believers called them, to passers-by.

An Asian woman walked up to Lori wanting directions. "Do you know where we are right now?" the woman asked.

Lori said she did.

She gave her directions and also a tract.

People have been predicting the end of time since the beginning of time. Academics who study apocalyptic theories say they appeal in particular to people who feel stressed, underappreciated or overlooked, or financially unstable. Lori and her husband filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Their house is worth roughly half of what they paid for it five years ago. In those five years, Lori's younger brother had been arrested four times, for driving drunk, possession of marijuana, resisting arrest and violating probation.

On Friday night, on Facebook, she posted a piece of Scripture: "Finally, brethren, farewell."

On Saturday, the sun came up and was quick to get predictably bright and hot, and Lori went over to her parents' house, behind the gate and on the corner lot, and she waited to get lifted to heaven and away from this world.

• • •

Around 5:40 p.m., the deputies left in their cars, one by one. It got quiet and still. A white dog ran through a yard across the street. A light wind blew the bushes by the wraparound porch.

It was 5:59. It was 6:00. It was 6:01.

The front door was flanked by fake ficus trees. The door opened, slowly, and Lori's husband stepped out.

He had wet eyes and a tear-dampened tissue in his hand. There was a cut on the right side of his face. He said now was not a good time to talk. It had been, he said, a difficult, emotional day.

The arrest report would say that inside the house Lori's younger brother, James Carl McKay, 34, also of Wesley Chapel, attacked her husband, first with his fists and then with a sword. Her husband bled from the cut. Her brother cursed at him, the report said, and threatened to kill him. He was arrested and charged with felony battery and aggravated assault 10 minutes before Camping had said the Rapture would happen.

A text message from Lori arrived three hours later.

"All I can say at this point," she said, "is that until May 21 is no longer on this earth … I still believe."

• • •

The sun came up on Sunday, bright and hot, again.

"I was hoping for it," one believer told the Associated Press, "because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth."

Camping wasn't answering knocks on his door.

Lori posted a note on Facebook.

"I feel," she wrote, "because I have made such a bold proclamation of the return of Christ to all of you, I should follow up on where I stand today now that the day has come and gone.

"Yes, I was wrong. I am not sure why God allowed this to happen in my life. However, my faith is not soon shaken. Please do not feel sorry for me or become concerned that my family is going to turn away from God. … Both my husband and my children are stronger for this as well. We put God above all things and that will not change.

"However," she wrote, "I do have to say that it has saddened me to see so many people that sit in the wings waiting for a brother to fall. …

"May the Lord bless you all."

News researchers Shirl Kennedy and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelkruse.

For Rapture believers in Pasco, a humbling dose of reality 05/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 2:18pm]
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