On Researching Forgotten Gratitude

I am currently researching the life of Ms. Agnes C. L. Donohugh for a chapter I’m writing

Agnes Donohugh - gray scale FOR PRINT

Agnes C. L. Donohugh

with some anthropologists and theologians.  I’m the lone historian of the bunch, but it’s a great bunch.  I sort of stumbled upon Agnes Donohugh in the process of doing some other related research, but I think she was the first American missionary to take a university-level Anthropology course prior to serving as a missionary overseas (with the Methodist Episcopal Church).  She went on to be the first American missionary to receive a graduate Anthropology degree from Franz Boas, the so-called “father of American Anthropology.”  She was also most influential in crafting the shape of anthropological training for missionaries between World War I and II.  In spite of these contributions and notable “firsts” hardly anyone has ever heard of her.

There are several reasons for her forgottenness.  At Hartford Seminary’s Kennedy School for Missions (where she taught from 1917 to 1944) she was always the less famous person teaching anthropology courses even if she did it longer than anyone.  British anthropologist/missionaries Edwin W. Smith and William Willoughby both published more books, were older than she was, and were, well, men.  It didn’t help that Agnes had a master’s degree from Columbia University and not a doctoral degree in an age when Anthropology as a field was increasingly becoming professionalized in such a way to exclude people from anthropology circles who didn’t have a Ph.D.

On a recent research trip to Columbia University it was a rather fitting – if frustrating – testimony to Agnes’s “forgottenness” that I learned that her 1917 master’s thesis was rather difficult to find.  It had no call number.  Conversations with four different and helpful university librarians finally yielded fruit, and I have been assured that they will be able to find it somewhere off-site.  Even her correspondence with Franz Boas – limited though it is – is proving a bit difficult to get my hands on through another archive.  But this is all part of the task of historians and, admittedly, these challenges are pretty mild compared to the sort of detective work many historians working on many other projects have to do on a routine basis.

Agnes Donohugh was more of a teacher than a scholar, although her contributions as a scholar are not, it turns out, insignificant.  (You’ll have to wait for my chapter to get done for me to elaborate on that.) She readily acknowledged at the end of her twenty-five year teaching career at the Hartford Kennedy School for Missions that she “never had time to write books.” She held many ideas about anthropology and Christian mission loosely such that she always considered them subject to alteration.  I sympathize with Donohugh in many respects.  My contributions, like hers, are far more likely to be recognized in the classroom or in the occasional “thank you” from a former student than in some future retirement banquet at the American Society of Church History where renowned professors are often rightly honored.  And I am OK with that.  I cherish my students’ “thank you’s” deeply.  I have a hunch that Agnes Donohugh did as well.

It is for this reason that I spent the better part of a sunny March Monday in the cold basement of Hartford Seminary’s library paging through twenty or so dissertations from the 1930s which I thought might mention Agnes Donohugh in the Acknowledgments of their work.  (Most of these dissertations actually didn’t have an Acknowledgments section unlike dissertations of today.) I was looking for hints of what her students thought of her.  After several hours of doing this I realized that I was researching the history of gratitude in Agnes’s life.  While tedious, I was struck by the beauty of that.

Today, I was grading papers from my United Methodist History and Early Doctrine course, and a common quotation from Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” one student commented on struck me with renewed force.  In describing what sanctification was all about, Wesley famously wrote that “It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks [emphasis mine].” In everything giving thanks…  Indeed, gratitude is a marker of one’s sanctification.   Gratitude given and, perhaps, gratitude received.

Many have noted that gratitude lies at the foundation of so much of life.  There are around thirty Psalms of Thanksgiving in the Bible.  Maybe I should consider brief sentences thanking Agnes Donohugh as little sonnets of thanksgiving as well.  Seen in that way, the day spent searching the Acknowledgments and other parts of eighty-year-old dissertations for hints about this forgotten anthropologist and mission professor does not seem so misspent after all.  Now, if only I could have the same attitude toward my unmarked papers I’ve yet to grade…

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All Saints Day: On “The Enormous Condescension of Posterity”

I was recently in Princeton, New Jersey to visit a friend and wound up spending an afternoon in a superb bookstore – The Labyrinth – across the street from campus.  Browsing bookstores with the density of serious academic titles this one had is not a frequent experience for me these days, so I really enjoyed myself.  I happened upon a new book by Cal Winslow, E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics (Monthly Review Press, 2014).  I regularly assign in one of my classes Thompson’s famous chapter (to historians of Methodism anyway) on Methodism in The Making of the English Working Class.  A couple years ago I also caught the tail end of a session at the American Historical Association celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of that monumental and bestselling book.  I think Thompson got plenty wrong about the Methodist movement, but the work is still generative for good thinking about what made Methodists tick.

Winslow’s book, however, is mostly a collection of E.P. Thompson’s political writings which, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I have never read at all.  I don’t know why.  I knew he was a creative thinker who somehow combined the life of an activist and historian and that he was resolute in searching for a thoughtful socialist alternative through opposing political camps in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.  He was seeking to craft the first “New Left” in those years.  As I read his work in Winslow’s book I couldn’t help but admire his courage, creativity, and thoughtful idealism.  His concern to rescue the English working class of an earlier era from the “enormous condescension of posterity” was unrelenting as was his refusal to espouse easy compromises between prevailing ideas.

I think we need to reconsider Thompson’s work these days as the tendency to be condescending toward those who have gone before us is equally unrelenting in today’s world.  “Disruptive innovation” all too often seems to have replaced careful thinking about and learning from history.  (Jill Lapore’s essay, “The Disruption Machine,” in The New Yorker a few months ago is well worth reading on this.)

Last month I wrote a letter to the editor of The Oregonian criticizing an op-ed piece by Steve Duin on plans to remove a statue in the U.S. Capitol of a pioneer Methodist missionary to Oregon in the early 19th century.  I agreed with Mr. Duin that it may be time to switch whom we memorialize in that space, but not for the reasons he espoused.  Methodist missionary to Oregon Rev. Jason Lee surely had blind spots and was guilty of unjust treatment of Native Americans, but he does not deserve condescending condemnation.  He accomplished a great deal, and based on my brief survey of his work I believe his motives were consistent with some of the best missionaries of his age.  The memory of Rev. Lee would be well-served by open acknowledgment of his failures so long as we also asked for what failures future generations may likewise criticize us.  That is the kind of reflection All Saints Day should prompt in our lives.

To further encourage that reflection on this All Saints Day E. P. Thompson should get the last word:

It is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead.  It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy.  The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles us with its brightness.  What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists.  But this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held in store.  Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street-lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars.  –E. P. Thompson, “A Special Case” in Writing by Candlelight cited in Winslow, E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. 2014.

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I have been thinking about friendship a fair amount recently.  There are a number of reasons for this.  I have recently moved to Oregon from Pennsylvania and am separated from friends who remain “back east.”  In my research I am trying to better understand the friendships which helped to create international Christian organizations like the World Council of Churches, the International Missionary Council, and several other ecumenical and mission organizations in the early twentieth century.  People too often only see these as the bureaucratic structures they became.  Deep friendships and trust formed these organizations.  Bureaucratic gymnastics did not – or at least not as much.  I have also been moved by expressions of friendship and love at our new church and also among my children as they have sought to maintain friendships from Philadelphia and have begun to establish new ones in Oregon.  Even the start of Lent has brought these friendships to mind as I meditated last week on the conversation or silence shared by four friends descending Mt. Tabor after the Transfiguration.  (I preached on that story at two churches last week – my Oregon preaching debut!)  The study of Christian mission as well as Methodism throughout the world could surely be told also as a story of friendship in many different times and places. One of the most influential Christian tracts ever used by missionaries was written by William Milne and was simply called “Two Friends.”  It was very influential in China for a century beginning in the early 19th century.

I am deeply grateful for the true friends I have been privileged to know.  Out of gratitude, in this post I simply would like to post a few quotations on friendship from authors which I have come across over the years.

 The friendship is not reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out.  It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.  They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by friendship God opens our eyes to them.  They are, like all beauties, derived from Him and then, in a good friendship, increased by Him through the friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.  At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.  It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside.  Let us not reckon without our Host. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 89-90.)

And what is a friend? More than a father, more than a brother: a traveling companion, with him, you can conquer the impossible, even if you must lose it later. Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. It is a friend that you communicate the awakening of a desire, the birth of a vision or a terror, the anguish of seeing the sun disappear or of finding that order and justice are no more. That’s what you can talk about with a friend. Is the soul immortal, and if so why are we afraid to die? If God exists, how can we lay claim to freedom, since He is its beginning and its end? What is death, when you come down to it? The closing of a parenthesis, and nothing more? And what about life? In the mouth of a philosopher, these questions may have a false ring, but asked during adolescence or friendship, they have the power to change being: a look burns and ordinary gestures tend to transcend themselves. What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so you in turn can help him. Thanks to him who you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it. (Elie Wiesel, Gates of the Forest )

As George Eliot writes of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (George Eliot, Middlemarch, cited in Tom Palaima, “On the Power of Mentors” )

May these be sources of inspiration and encouragement for all who read them to face the challenge and beauty of being a true friend.  Challenge and beauty… I wonder if that is what the three disciples learned as they walked off the Transfiguration mountain with their friend, Jesus.

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It has been some weeks since the Church celebrated The Feast of Epiphany (January 6th).  This is the day in the church calendar when the Three Wise Men get extra “air time” in the church and when the Gospel as light to all the world is celebrated.  In Eastern Orthodoxy the baptism of Jesus is also recognized on this day.

I spent Epiphany this year teaching my history of world Christianity course in Philadelphia, a course we call “The Church in Mission through History.” After teaching that one week “intensive” I travelled to New Haven, Connecticut for another week of research at the wonderful Day Missions Library at Yale Divinity School.  During my week of research I stayed at the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) across the street.

At OMSC I was struck by a number of the pieces of art on display which were done by previous “artists in residence” whom OMSC sponsors.  I had seen these pictures before in books which the Center has published over the years, but in the days after Epiphany the following painting was most striking to me as I encountered it walking up the steps to my room after a day in the archives.  It was the delight and surprise of the encounter the artist portrays between Egyptian princess and Hebrew infant that jumped out at me in the painting as I trudged up the steps tired from a tedious day of research with few epiphanies.  The colors, brightness, and joy of this story from Exodus 2:1-10 have not been something I have reflected upon before.  The text even says that Moses cried, but can that be understood as a cry of laughter as the artist, Sawai Chinnawong, portrays it?  Sure!

Chinnawong painting moses and princess

This story is not typically considered as one appropriate for Epiphany, but it could be.  The encounter surely occurred in the midst of a great deal of darkness – the enslavement of Hebrews by the Egyptians and the deaths of many infants of similar age to Moses to mention just two dark realities surrounding the story.  This brief encounter portrayed by the artist is filled with light in contrast to that darkness but not separate from it at all. The symbol of empire in the princess’s crown and the reality of an infant slave escaping persecution by that same empire is here.

The joy of the cross-cultural encounter portayed here is also striking.  In my teaching I try very hard to teach about the challenge and hard work of cross-cultural communication.  I implicitly teach about the joy of cross-cultural relationships as well through the laughter inevitably produced in the intercultural communication games I play with my classes.

Finally, the painting is also a reminder for me to always strive to learn the stories of people whom we are too often quick to categorize as the enemy, the oppressed, the poor, the oppressor, the weak, or the rich.  The future Queen of an Empire and a Hebrew infant slave seem to meet one another in this painting in a way that their true selves are recognized.  The artist chooses to not portray Moses as suffering – even if he and his people were – but rather as joyful.  The ripe wheat in the background also brings to mind for me the abundance and grace of God’s provision – an abundance squandered by the Egyptians in future years as the story of Moses unfolds.

Epiphany is usually considered a New Testament sort of holiday.  I still love the story of (possibly) Zoastrian Wise Men on a crazy journey through Iraq and Jordan to follow a star.  It is even a holiday that expresses hope for mission professors on a somewhat less treacherous voyage through an archive! This painting that I saw in the days after Epiphany was a reminder that epiphanies can come in many different ways.  May we have eyes to see them when they come and hearts open enough to receive them with joy.

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Make Poverty History

I have noticed in my teaching about international development as a dimension of Christian mission that some of my students express uneasiness with the way I discuss this topic in my Christian World Mission course.  The uneasiness likely comes from a number of different sources.  Let me explain.

Students at Palmer Theological Seminary get a fair amount of exposure to what might be called liberationist and ”postcolonial” perspectives in their systematic theology and ethics courses.  These courses are usually taken before they enroll in my course.  Students affiliated with Palmer’s Sider Center sometimes come with such perspectives already well-established from courses they took during their undergraduate courses of study.

One source of the uneasiness then is that I simply take a different tack in my course.  Some years ago, Sojourners magazine sponsored a conference entitled “Make Poverty History.”  I did not attend, but the conference theme struck me in a different way than the sponsors no doubt intended.  I try to “make” (learn, teach, and write about) poverty history.  I do this for a variety of reasons, one of which is my belief that many bad solutions to the problems of poverty in this country and abroad have been created out of a frenetic but insufficiently thoughtful desire to “do something.”  The history of poverty alleviation efforts is a lesson in humility.  That is always hard to learn.

My students who are or will be Christian leaders in many different congregations will have ample opportunity – if they choose – to engage their congregations in promoting international (and local) development efforts through countless NGOs engaged in poverty alleviation work.  It is my hope that this awareness of the history of poverty alleviation around the world will not only give them a sense of humility but will also help them to be more discerning of efforts in which they choose to invest their and their congregations’ time and resources.  An additional source of uneasiness seems to emerge when I mention that ostensibly well-intentioned and currently popular efforts may, in fact, do a fair amount of harm.

A final source of my students’ uneasiness is perhaps one I share most strongly.  When introducing the topic of international development as a dimension of Christian mission I choose to mostly tell the story of bilateral (government), multilateral (UN, World Bank) and nongovernmental organization engagement with poverty alleviation efforts during (mostly) the last fifty years.  Obviously, I do not provide an exhaustive overview.   I readily admit that this is also a “view from above” rather than a view of poverty from the perspective of poor persons which varies considerably with context.  I stress that understanding large international organizations is nonetheless important even if our attentiveness to “the grassroots” may be emotionally and even theologically more appealing.  I explain how efforts at poverty alleviation are enmeshed in US foreign policy decisions which are not always altruistic in nature.  Many – and sometimes conflicting – motivations are at play.  I have no truck for theological platitudes masquerading as true insight nor for rhetoric which romanticizes the poor and the ugliness of absolute poverty.  I do not want to overstate my students’ uneasiness, however, with this historical analysis of international development organizations.  Many students genuinely appreciate this overview even if it does cloud over the sometimes starry-eyed rhetoric to “make poverty history.”

I will continue to take the title of that Sojourners conference literally.  I wish more students, pastors, and scholars were engaged in learning lessons from history by literally learning, teaching, and writing poverty history.  We surely need more people – myself included – who are actually doing the work with the poor.  My own focus on teaching and writing poverty history does not make sense unless others similarly focus on grassroots work.  My prayer is that my students’ uneasiness with this topic in my class or the way I choose to discuss it will propel them to action in a way that is true to their vocations.

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On the Church and Mission

The Autumn season is upon us with its crisp evening air, changing leaves, and ramping up of church and school programs.  On the latter I have been thinking a fair amount recently as it pertains to the nature of the church and how I talk about the church in my classes.  Missiologists like myself like to quote (perhaps too uncritically) Emil Brunner’s famous phrase, “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.”  Somewhat less frequently quoted is Ivan Illich’s remark that missiology is the “study of the church as surprise.”  I like these quotations.  I use them frequently in my classes.  While one should always be wary of building theology upon “soundbites,” quotations such as these are good reminders for a people (myself included) who get too attached to programmatic thinking and institutional maintenance such that we lose sight of God’s larger mission in the world.

I wonder, however, if the words of Lesslie Newbigin in an often overlooked book, The Household of God (1953), are equally necessary in an age where it is so very easy to be flippant or even derogatory toward the church as an embodied institution.  I wonder how my remarks about the church are received by my students.  I wonder if my use of the Brunner and Illich quotations mentioned above unintentionally reinforces an unhealthy anti-institutionalism or an attitude whereby the church is merely instrumental to a wider, more glorious end.  Newbigin writes,

This life in Christ [which the church seeks to embody] is not merely the instrument of the apostolic mission, it is also its end and purpose.  The Church can be instrumental to the divine purpose of salvation only because she is much more than instrumental – because she is in fact herself the Body of Christ.  In other words, just as we must insist that a Church which has ceased to be a mission has lost the essential character of a Church, so we must also say that a mission which is not at the same time truly a Church is not a true expression of the divine apostolate.  An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary Church.

It may be that Newbigin put too fine a point on things in his effort to keep a vibrant tension in his thinking about the Church and mission.  In my classes I will continue to stress the dynamic images of the church as fire or the church as surprise as exemplified by Brunner and Illich.  But Newbigin’s ecclesiological and missiological insight remains an important articulation of a valuable tension in Christian theology.

Maybe the reason I am drawn to Newbigin’s ideas here is also the reason why I especially like the moment in the Lord’s Supper liturgy when we say together as the Church, “We give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.  Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others…”  Our life in Christ is powerfully made manifest in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and our call to mission is there as well – through the flaming fires of Pentecost and in the “surprise” of the Incarnation.

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On living between techne and poiesis

Because of slight changes in my course syllabi necessitated by some additional travel last semester I found myself grading book reviews by students on two different books which stood in rather odd juxtaposition to one another in a way they never had before.  Shusako Endo’s Silence and David Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open were the two texts students wrote on for my “Church in Mission through History” and “Christian World Mission” courses, respectively.  The absurdity emerged as I wrote comments on papers about “short term mission” and encouraged students to think more deeply about what has become a very popular – even trendy – form of being involved in mission while in the same sitting also responding to students’ heartfelt questions about what apostasy meant for tortured Jesuits in 17th century Japan and what it means for ministry in light of the cross today.  Both books speak passionately of mission.  To be clear, I am neither terribly interested in dismissing short-term mission efforts as wholly unhelpful, nor am I wanting to romanticize the brutal persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan or anywhere else.  Both books have their place and have much to teach.

And yet it is hard to escape the fact that the picture of Christian mission in these two texts is so very different that it stretches the definition of “mission” in challenging ways.  I was reminded as I graded these papers on Endo’s book of similar feelings I had reading novels and short stories by Albert Camus in a course I took with Elie Wiesel at Boston University.  At the end of one of those novels (I think it was The Rebel) Camus writes that one ought to learn to “live and to love and to refuse to be a god.”  Camus might rightly affirm the Jesuit protagonist in Shusako Endo’s Silence for living in that way.  By contrast, what disturbs me too often in reading students’ papers on short term mission and even in reading my own comments on their papers is that too much talk of mission today stays so very close to the surface of life and stuck in a programmatic or techne (as opposed to poiesis) way of thinking.

I recently shared with students a lot of statistical information about the status of world Christianity while working with the World Christian Database in class.  After demonstrating the wonder of such a statistical tool I was uneasy.  I warned them to not use these statistics in such a way that they thought too highly of themselves in being able to “capture the world with numbers.”  This, after all, is quite a danger for many people – perhaps especially those who are trained as economists.  I have never forgotten the warning in Herman Daly and John Cobb’s book, For the Common Good, where they noted the dangers of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  For as much as I enjoy teaching with these statistics and having students tell me what they found surprising about them I still, at the end of the day, desire to stress more the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium and affirm “the mystery of the church.”  Maybe it is just a more ecclesiological way of expressing what Camus intended.

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It has always struck me as odd that some people find cemeteries to be uncomfortable places.  I grew up mowing a cemetery – the same place for which my father remains the caretaker at age seventy-five.

This summer I visited two new cemeteries that I found especially meaningful.  The first was the burial ground for the Roman Catholic religious order, the Society of the Divine Word (SVDs), in Techny (near Chicago).  They are the largest missionary order in the Roman Catholic Church.  I visited the grave of anthropologist Louis Luzbetak along with a colleague who visits his old friend each year as an expression of friendship across the vale.  I had seen Professor Luzbetak just two times at the American Society of Missiology meetings before he passed away in 2005, a few months before I started teaching at Palmer.  Now, he was resting peacefully next to fellow priests of the Society of the Divine Word.

The second cemetery I visited this summer was on the outskirts of Rome, one of several catacombs where thousands of early Christians were buried.  Coincidentally, it was a site that brothers and priests in the Society of Divine Word have responsibility for running – at least to the extent that they were taking care of guiding around pilgrims like myself.  Our guide mentioned in passing how a linguistic shift had occurred for the early Christians in the term they used to describe these burial places.  Instead of using the pagan term “necropolis” which means “city of the dead” they used the Greek term “koimeterion” which means rather “sleeping place.”  This term is the etymological forbear to the English word “cemetery.”  Far from a mere romantic euphemism to mask the realities of death, the term koimeterion rather is packed with theological significance.  Those interred in that place were now “sleeping” but nonetheless part of the church triumphant.

In my teaching about mission and Methodism as a historian I have, over the past several years, become heartily convinced of the truth of William Faulkner’s famous quip:  “The past isn’t really dead.  It isn’t even past.” Faulkner was writing about the ugly legacy of racism in America when he crafted those words.  I think about this quotation in a more positive light.  My learning about the etymological origins of “cemetery” amplified for me just how important the historian’s task is and how Faulkner’s quote might be altered to also say something about a Christian’s view of history:  “The dead aren’t really past.  They aren’t even dead.”    I suppose I started to learn about this behind a lawnmower in the Mt. Hope cemetery in northeast Iowa.  It is also what those early Christians sought to teach one another in changing the term from “necropolis” to “koimeterion.”  This word change is a simple yet powerful expression of hope.  Hope through history:  I think that is at least one of the vital points I try to get across in my teaching.  It is, I admit, more easily caught than taught in a culture of tweeting.  But I try.

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Welcome to my Mission and Methodism blog

I intend this blog to be a place where I mostly make posts that refer to my vocation as a teacher of missiology and Methodism, but no doubt there will be other themes which emerge here as well from time to time.  Students, of course, are warmly encouraged to join in the conversation!

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