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Campus ministry group starts Internet outpost in Russia

2/7/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By United Methodist News Service

With the help of former students who have returned to Russia, a campus ministry group from Kentucky is staking an "Internet outpost" in Smolensk, Russia.

The idea is to bridge nine time zones while bypassing less dependable and more expensive forms of communication, according to the Rev. Brent Porterfield, who leads the Murray State University Methodist Campus Fellowship. One goal is to connect with alumni, Russian church members and anyone else in Smolensk.

Porterfield explained that a U.S. State Department program called the "Freedom Support Act" brings a number of students from Russia and the former Soviet republics to the Murray State campus each year. Some of those students join the campus fellowship.

"One student and his network of friends in Russia allowed the Smolensk project to take shape as it has, although other Russian students will travel to Smolensk to help us," he said.

The Murray State fellowship has rented and furnished a room in an office building there and hopes to have an ISDN line installed for the four computers and server by mid-February. Classes with youth and adults on computer essentials and English language skills already have begun.

Located about 200 miles west of Moscow on the European side, Smolensk has many characteristics of a smaller U.S. city, according to Porterfield, despite a population of 400,000 and nearly 1 million when the surrounding region is included. With poor telephone connections, the absence of an airport and lack of access to "super highways," communication is difficult.

"In our survey of access to the Internet, we determined there are fewer than 20 'public' computers connected in three locations - in two private Internet cafes and two machines at the post office," he told United Methodist News Service. The connections that do exist are not high speed and the cost of public access is high, he said.

"Private computer ownership, and access charges through an Internet service provider, is out of reach for nearly all of the population," he said. "Students are exposed to computers in school, but time on the Internet is very limited."

While the Internet outpost is registered with Russian authorities as an "autonomous nonprofit organization," Porterfield does envision cooperation with local United Methodist congregations, which meet in house churches and worship in a former cinema hall on Sundays.

"We are organizing an advisory board that will bring leaders in the business, legal, medical and educational communities into a relationship with Methodists in Smolensk," he said.

Startup funding has come through gifts from individuals and a corporate sponsor as well as the campus ministry program. Porterfield also is seeking funding from other sources and would like to establish relationships with United Methodist groups that might benefit from the Internet ministry.

The Smolensk Web site and e-mail service will be hosted on servers in Memphis, Tenn., owned by ChristianGlobe.com. For more information, contact Porterfield at Brent@clergy.net or at (270) 753-9859.

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