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Online 'Interview with God' draws large following

12/23/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMTV report is also available

By Nancye Willis*

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (UMNS) - A Web site called "Interview with God," created by a United Methodist Sunday school teacher, is sweeping the Internet, attracting millions of visitors.

Created by Reata (pronounced "Rita") Strickland, the imaginary conversation with the Almighty uses a combination of landscape photographs, inspirational text and Shockwave animation. Strickland belongs to Romulus United Methodist Church, located in a rural area near Tuscaloosa.

The message of the "interview" is a simple one, touching on such subjects as love, self-worth, relationships and forgiveness, and including God's hopes for his children. An example: "That they live as if they'll never die and die as if they've never lived."

A Web site designer at the University of Alabama, Strickland originally set out in the spring of 2001 to develop a site for the United Methodist Church's Tuscaloosa District offices. "I was working on the site, and I said, 'This needs something.'"

She had seen a PowerPoint presentation of "Interview with God" and had been struck by it. "The words to 'Interview with God' are very simple," Strickland says, "and yet they have such a power to them. When I first read them, they really touched me deeply. I wanted to do something with these words."

When the opportunity presented itself, she knew what to do. "I'll put the 'Interview with God' on here," she recalls thinking.

Believing she could improve the visual presentation she'd seen, she developed her own slide show. Pleased with the result, she was not prepared for the reaction. "I expected maybe 20, 25 people in our little town to see this," she says.

The district site was quickly overwhelmed with traffic. "Within a week, the site had crashed," she recalls. "I called the people who maintain the site, and they said, 'We've had over 500,000 hits within the last week.'"

Strickland moved the animation to her personal site, Word spread by e-mail lists, and the number of visits continued to build. Within a month, 2.4 million people had seen it, and two and half years later, more than 20 million people have found their way to her online devotion. Volunteers have translated the text into 13 languages.

Strickland still marvels at the 15,000 hits the site receives each day. It draws "people from all over the world - from China, Japan, Russian, Europe, everywhere," she says.

"I want to talk to them and ask, 'Where do you live?' 'How did you find this?' 'What do you think?'"

The reactions of Web visitors are gratifying, she says. "A 94-year-old man e-mailed me, and he said that he did not believe in God until he viewed this."

Keeping up with the demand requires 40 gigabytes of bandwidth daily, putting a strain on the Strickland budget. To help cover costs of roughly $400 a month, Strickland is selling "Interview with God" screensavers, posters and T-shirts.

She and her husband, Steve, a part-time local pastor serving the Romulus and Pleasant Grove United Methodist churches, believe the Web site's popularity is the result of a higher power. " I cannot explain it any other way," she says.

"I did my part and God did the rest," she says of the phenomenon. "This speaks to
power - the power of words, the power of the Internet and the power of God."

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*Willis is editor for the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

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