Reaching out to spiritual refugees

Tom Moran, the editorial page editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, is a cradle Roman Catholic who now refers to himself as a spiritual refugee. In a moving column in yesterday’s Newark Star-Ledger, he talks about how the Catholic hierarchy’s teachings on divorce and homosexuality drove him out of the church.


Moran’s personal story is a familiar one. As he points out, one in three American adults was raised a Catholic, but only one in four call themselves Catholic today. I am one of the many former Catholics who became an Episcopalian. If I knew Tom Moran personally, I’d invite him to my church. We have a lot in common. I am assuming from his name that he’s at least half Irish, and he comes from a large family. I think that, like me, he might find much of what he loved and less of what he objected to about the Catholic Church within the Episcopal Church.

Maybe not, but it would be worth a try.

I have wondered why the Episcopal Church, which, if I am not mistaken, is a church made up primarily of adult converts, has never formally reached out to “spiritual refugees” like Moran. What keeps us from saying: Hey, if you consider yourself a Christian, but find much of Christianity misogynistic or homophobic, if you think it is pre-modern in it understanding of creation, you might want to pay us a visit or two and try us on for size. We aren’t perfect, and we offer fewer certainties that more conservative brands of Christianity, but you may consider that a plus.

This isn’t something we can expect Episcopal HQ to do for us. The money isn’t there, and one suspects that it would be difficult to get the necessary agreements on the nature of the message that we might extend. But there isn’t anything stopping individuals, parishes, dioceses and groups of dioceses from saying to the Tom Morans of the world that our doors are open to them and they might like what we find inside. Yet we don’t do it. At least not with any real energy.

Why not? How do we get over our natural reticence about evangelism, pull some money together and make it broadly obvious that people who found other churches harsh and punitive may find our approach to the Christian faith more, um, Christian? We should be in the business of taking in spiritual refugees. But I am not sure those refugees even know we are here.

In workshops on using the means of mass communications for the ends of evangelism, my business partner, Rebecca Wilson, and I sometimes remind people that if you are in a room of 100 randomly generated Americans, you are probably the only Episcopalian in the group. If every Episcopalian who found themselves in that situation took one person out of that room with them, we’d double the size of the church.

What’s the best way to make a deep connection with that one person? To couch what the church has to say in unobjectionable bromides designed to prevail in a plebiscite? Or to speak in a personal way about what is distinctive about the church, what you love best about your church, and why you are an Episcopalian rather than a member of some other denomination?

We Episcopalians have a tendency to illuminate the interior of bushel baskets. This is decorous. It is polite. But it is not what God calls us to do.

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28 Comments
  1. Kraut1701

    The Episcopal Church, as much as I love it, is still an upper-income WASPish denomination. Attracting former Catholics means attracting Latinos and other non-whites and working class folk. I don’t know that most Episcopal communities have the ability or desire to reach out to those groups.

    Morris Post

  2. Ann Fontaine

    Morris – you haven’t looked at the latest stats on the the Episcopal Church – Latino/Hispanic are the fastest growing part of the church. Our church in Nehalem is 1/3 first language Spanish speakers.

  3. Integrity/NYC-Metro actively encourages its members and supporting parishes to get out there and tell people that the Episcopal Church is a welcoming home for people who have been driven away from their former churches. See the file “Shock Your Family” here http://stuff.oshma.net/ for a sample of how we spark conversation. (Use at will; Integrity/NYC-Metro just asks for acknowledgement.)

  4. Don Hill

    One of the problems is how to let former or lapsed Roman Catholics know about the Episcopal Church in a way that does not damage our ecumenical relationships. I suggested to George Martin that Church Ad Project take this on well over a decade ago and even with all his creativity was not able to really find the key to do it succinctly in a mass medium. So we are back to 1st century CE tactics – one person telling another person… sharing the good news they have found.

  5. Juan Oliver

    Me thinks the problem is much, much deeper. Perfectly well meaning people, intested in picking a spiritual path might come by n a sunday and never return. Not bec. We are too conservative or too liberal (they likely negotiated that before coming) but, I fesr, because what we do un Sunday is not decipherable to them. There are many reasons for this.

    Contemprary folks are not very good at relishing metaphor and symbol. (not my idea, but Catherone Pickstock’s and Mary Collins’). As a result they take what little they can get from a typical Sunday service and it scares them. Add to that our inability to either translate what takes place on sunday in some intelligible way, or develop ways of accompanying people as they explore the Christian life with us, and all you have, if that is a courageous line of church shoppers walking through a turnstile and back out. Perhaps we are attending too much to our needs and not enough to theirs? What kind of hospitality is that?

  6. St. Luke in the Fields in NYC has a booming 20s/30s group, and we have had to increase the frequency of our general Newcomers’ Brunches.

    Our worship is Anglo-Catholic, and both inclusive and beautiful. People who come to us are looking for *transcendence*, not more of what they get in entertainment day in and day out. (I have visited too many churches where “accessible” and “sloppy” seem to be understood as synonyms.)

    At the same time, the majority of our parishioners are intentional about introducing themselves to new people and escorting them to coffee hour.

    Both are necessary.

  7. Jim Naughton

    I dunno, Juan. One of every ten American adults is a former Roman Catholic. I think they’d decipher what we do just fine.

  8. Bill Dilworth

    I agree that ought to reach out to Christians who feel they can no longer belong to their home Churches, but (1) we ought not to make it a substitute for evangelization of the unchurched – bringing in the disaffected is a form of picking low-hanging fruit; and (2) we should beware of becoming identified by the emotional and spiritual baggage of converts. Various Eastern Orthodox bodies in the US have been transformed (and not for the better) by large waves of former Evangelicals and WO/gay-fleeing former Episcopalians, and we should learn from them by making sure that would-be converts are not so much running from another Church as they are running to the Episcopal Church. This applies to former UCCers, say, as much as to former RCs.

  9. THANK YOU!

    Also, I have some ideas for attracting converts and refugees, especially of the Roman Catholic variety…

    1. Within the confines of the Book of Common Prayer, select the options that most clearly correspond to the Roman Rite.

    2. Learn to like Contemporary Catholic music, from the SLJs to Haas to Matt Maher. Some people fled to the Episcopal Church BECAUSE of that music, but many more (I suspect) avoid the Episcopal Church because they don’t want to be bored by old hymns sung slowly.

    (To elaborate: If your parish has an amazing classical/traditional music program, it should not be abandoned in favor of Catholic folk or any other style. But many smaller congregations are hobbling along with 4 random selections from the 1982 played poorly on a crummy organ. Haas and friends would be a vast improvement).

    3. Billboards, banner ads, and fliers with the following images:

    -a chalice held up as at the elevation, by obviously female hands

    -a priest (vested according to contemporary RC style) presiding over the blessing of a same-sex union

    -male and female priests concelebrating

    4. Go to NPM conventions and other high-quality liturgy workshops put on by progressive Catholic organizations. It is my experience that Episcopalians, when they try to be “contemporary,” tend to look about 30 years out-of-date, confused and grasping at guitars like RCs in the late 60s. Kumbaya is not appropriate, people.

  10. Dallasite

    I think the questions you end up with are good ones, but I am uneasy basing an evangelism on the premise of “Come join us – we’re not like those other guys”.

    I’m a cradle Episcopalian, and I’ve heard variations on that theme for decades – (although in my part of the world, it’s usually the Baptists or more fundamentalist denominations, rather than the Catholics, who seem to be wounding their flock). That seems to be a fairly narrow platform from which to reach out to folks.

    While reaching out to those looking for a more congenial worship home is clearly important, it seems to me that there needs to be a more compelling argument for joining an Episcopal Church, as opposed to the Methodists/Baptists/Disciples of Christ church down the road. Simply saying “we’re not like those Baptists or those Catholics –we’re nice!” is not enough. (Frankly, in my part of the world, it is the Episcopal Church, with the events of the last decade, that has suffered by comparison to some of the other denominations, which are now home to several people who used to attend my church; the Catholic churches seem to be booming).

    It seems to me that the emphasis on evangelism must be first and foremost on bringing the word of Christ to the world. Since Episcopalians tend to be embarrassed by such overt proclamations, we need to emphasize in our own understated way our own strengths – demonstrate how our form of worship, our outreach, our music, our liturgy, can enrich the lives of those who are seeking to make Christ part of their lives and those of their families. While “We won’t hurt you like your former home would” is important for some, it isn’t for everyone.

    It also seems that the youth and education programs in the Episcopal Church have historically been pretty weak; it’s an area in which my own parish has put a lot of effort, with some success. If, however parents don’t like the Sunday school, it doesn’t really matter how great the choir is; they’re going to take their kids to the church up the road that has a killer youth program. Frankly, that’s an area in which the Baptists have a lot to teach us; they are good at that.

    Paul

    Paul – please sign your full name next time you comment – thanks ~ed.

  11. Sridgcw

    Adam, with all due respect, I would suggest that “within [your] experience” is really not that much experience; that there is a far wider range of worship offerings, including music of very high quality (whether traditional or contemporary) than you suppose; that not every person over a certain age is an aging ex-hippie clinging to a guitar nor a fuddy-duddy ready to be put out to pasture; and finally, that it might help you if you tried to insult the people you are trying to convince a little less often.

    Sarah Ridgway

  12. Bill Dilworth

    Adam, wait — the St Louis Jesuits are “contemporary”? Fascinating…

  13. Kathryn Jensen

    Let the Baptists be the Baptists. Seriously, with all respect for them and others with similar approaches. I fear that sometimes Christians take the Great Commission as a mandate to seek the biggest market share, even when motivated by a genuine desire to evangelize. We tend to call it inclusivity and think in grandiose terms of reaching the growing numbers of people who are not only unchurched but have little or no familiarity with life in any kind of religious community. Of course, no one should be forgotten or ignored, and there is no doubt that Christianity faces enormous challenges in contemporary Western societies. But the Episcopal tradition does have some striking similarities to the Roman Catholic tradition, and those who are ready to leave or have virtually dropped out of Roman Catholic communities are both in need and have some natural affinities with our liturgical tradition and even some of the theology that goes with it.

    Why not consider the possibility that some (not all) Episcopal parishes might be called to be their new spiritual homes due to things we, pretty much as we are, have that the Baptists and others do not? What if institutional church, as we have known it, really is going to die out in another generation or two, as so many fear. Should we be wringing our hands, frantically trying to dismantle ourselves as quickly as possible so as to catch the wave of whatever the New Thing is supposed to be, or should we more humbly (as well as more realistically) look to see what we can do and be right now, which may well be the place where Roman Catholics can find familiar formal liturgies in a setting with some reverence and awe and rediscover that such religious practices can be alive and life-giving, both in worship and community.

    Maybe, just maybe, it is more important to take this small window (in time) of opportunity to reach out to the Roman Catholics, many of whom are going through a great deal of pain just in the last couple years, and give them a home, even if some may be “just” middle aged people or beyond and/or are not looking for the most dynamic youth programs, the most unchurched-friendly language, etc.

    I’m not saying that any of us should be complacent about having poor Christian education programs or failing to include and recognize youth and young adults as important parts of our communities, with their own needs. But what I am saying is that it may be time to stop dreaming about reaching out to Roman Catholics and worrying too much about ecumenical niceties. There is a great need out there, and we are perhaps in the best position to meet that need, if only we would make the effort to do so and not simply rely, as we formerly have, on Roman Catholics stumbling upon us by chance at weddings and funerals or by word of mouth. We need to seek out those, like Jim, who already among us, as well as be in a position to listen and learn from any Roman Catholics we can get to talk to us or visit us.

    If we do not, we will be like the guy waiting on top of his house during a flood, waiting for the imagined perfect response from God to the imagined perfect plea for help. Maybe our imperfect vessel, which is the Episcopal Church, may, at least in some places, be the ark for us to travel in for awhile while the floodwaters are rising. There may be many arks, and “we” may not be a single kind, even amongst ourselves, but let us not be so proud and self-important that we refuse to “settle” for what may be a lost generation of Roman Catholics, afraid that the Baptists, the non-denoms, or the Emerging Church, are going to beat us out in the race to find the perfect vessel for calling in all those with no church backgrounds or experience. Bless all those who do reach the None crowd, within and without TEC. Let us not compete but rather gather up the sheep as can each best find them.

  14. IT

    This post, along with the robust response by Episcopal Bishops in Newark and San Francisco to their RC cousins, are heartening. May I just say, it’s about time!

    Here in California, the collateral damage from Prop8 amongst Roman Catholics was substantial. I’ve blogged extensively elsewhere about how this drove my wife, a cradle RC, into the Episcopal Church where she was surprised and delighted to find that her beliefs fit seamlessly. I would wager that a very substantial proportion of the recent converts in our cathedral parish are also former RC.

    But here’s the thing. As those of you who know my internet persona are aware, I’d been lobbying my wife for YEARS to try TEC. If it hadn’t been for my needling and research on her behalf (down to investigating how friendly the various parishes are), she probably would have remained unhappily unaware of the Episcopal option as an expression of her Catholic faith.

    THink about that. A non-believer as an Episcopalian evangelist. (I’ve joked that given the number of people I’ve personally encouraged to try TEC,I should get a toaster! ;-)

    And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.

    Susan Forsburg

  15. 11oclockscholar

    My churches have done this well, I think. But I wonder if it is not something that works best on a one-to-one basis. You hardly need money for that, just passion.

    Cathy Kerr

  16. David O'Rourke

    The National Catholic Reporter ran a good article earlier this year that digs in to the reasons Catholics end up leaving the RCC and where they are going. It has some interesting insights that can definitely guide a discussion of how to reach out to those who are leaving the RCC and are looking for a new church home.

    http://ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/hidden-exodus-catholics-becoming-protestants

    One of the points I saw was that the single largest reason was that their spiritual needs were not being met (71%) and they found a church they liked better (70%). These reasons far outweighed disagreements with specific practices or beliefs or the sex abuse scandal. For those who joined mainline Protestant churches, 57% stated that their spiritual needs were not being met in the RCC.

    Of course the issue for us cannot be increasing our numbers. The starting place should be, how can we be communities that can meet the spiritual needs of the world around us, and specifically, our brothers and sisters who are leaving the RCC in droves and as IT pointed out, may not very well know where to look.

    If 10% of the US population is formerly Catholic, that is 30 million people. According to the article, half of these 30 million join Protestant churches, of which 1/3 join a mainline church and 2/3 join an evangelical church. That is 5 million former Catholics joining mainline churches.

    What can we do to meet the spiritual needs of these 5 million people? Studies like the one in NCR and also digging more deeply into why former Catholics who have made the move to TEC and are happy with the choice can guide our response.

  17. Maplewood

    Allow me some observations as a former Irish-RC, please. (Well, I’m still Irish, but you know what I mean…)

    1.Most RC’s only know about the AC/TEC from what they were taught by the RCC. Almost universally, they believe we are a church that was created by an English despot so he could murder his wives to marry others. I just had this conversation with a woman this morning. Though she has not set foot in a RC church in years, this is still her understanding of the AC and TEC.

    2. When you ask someone like an Irish Catholic to join our church, you are asking her to renounce her entire sense of identity. Being Irish Catholic is not belonging to a church; it is belonging to The Tribe. To leave the Tribe is to betray your entire family and heritage. I have relatives who still refuse to speak to me since joining TEC, and a sister who still prays daily for my salvation.

    IMO, most RC’ers are ripe for conversion, so to speak, and they deserve thy opportunity. All we need to do is help them ID what is preventing them from taking The Next Step: “You think, if you leave, you are betraying The Tribe. You are not. You are simply one of the few who had The Light Bulb snap on in your head and now you can see.”

    It is problematic for our bishops and “official church” to actively go after members of other churches, but that does not prevent the rest of us from speaking our mind to others. IMO, that is far more effective than ad campaigns.

    Kevin McGrane

  18. I was not saying that “Catholic folk” is normative for RC parishes or that it should be normative for Episcopal parishes.

    What I’m saying is that the type of Roman Catholics most likely to be drawn specifically to the Episcopal Church (liberals, people who support women’s ordination and the inclusion of gay people) are likely to be coming from a folk and/or contemporary liturgical praxis. Yes, that does still include the St. Louis Jesuits, along with all sorts of literature that has been written since then.

    It’s impossible to sum up the trends of Roman Catholic post-concilliar liturgy in a combox, but if we ARE seriously interested in providing a home for wounded ex-Catholic, it would behoove those who plan liturgy and music to become more familiar with what is going on over there.

    In my (YES, LIMITED) experience, Episcopalian musicians generally are not familiar with the best of current American RC practice. It isn’t that I think Episcopalians are aging hippies stuck in the 70s, it’s that the Episcopal Church hasn’t had 40 years to figure out what didn’t work, nor has it had much of a home-grown liturgical arts renewal.

    As to the question of whether we want all the converts cluttering up our Church, or whether “we’re nicer than the Catholics” is a good-enough attraction- I say “yes” to both.

    People leave Churches for all sorts of reasons. If the reason for leaving the Roman Catholic Church is that they hate women and gay people, then the Episcopal Church IS INDEED a natural fit. If the reason is that they find liturgy too restrictive, or don’t like the idea of Bishops, or don’t believe that it is appropriate to have instruments played during worship- well, there are other churches for those people.

    It isn’t about stealing sheep or competing. It is about ministering. People who have been hurt by specific churches, people who feel like refugees because of their beliefs- these people need a home, and we should have the compassion and good sense to do our best to provide it for them.

  19. Jim Naughton

    In my experience, Adam is on the nose about the liturgical music that the Catholics who are most likely to find a home in our church have been exposed to, indeed, that they probably like.

    I think he is also right that we aren’t talking about sheep stealing. These are grown up people who are fed up with one church and may be in the market for another. Happens all the time.

  20. David O'Rourke

    Kevin has hit the nail squarely on the head, at least in the Irish RC context.

    Some things that I have seen that address that though, are that there is a significant movement in Ireland from the RCC to the Anglican Church of Ireland. Also, many of the leading names in the quest for Irish independence were actually Anglicans, including Parnell, who led the campaign for Irish Home Rule in the 1800’s and ironically, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism.

    Of course one reason for that was that only Anglicans could serve in government and professions such as the law for most of the time that England ruled Ireland.

    I recall from the article posted a while back here on the Cafe that there are successful efforts in some dioceses to reach out to Latinos who are becoming disaffected by the RCC. What can we learn from those efforts?

  21. IT

    Kevin is very right about the sense of identity being a huge issue (and not just for the Irish). In addition, there’s a big part of RC identity that is based on everyone else being wrong. (AndI say that with experience, as one who grew up RC.)

    Therefore, that is something that often must be addressed–the sense in the departing Roman Catholic that he choosing to leave because the new destination is where he wants to go based on his own desires, and NOT based on The Truth. The leaver is told that he is willfully stepping off the true path for one in error. And that can be a very big thing to overcome–I think much harder for those who still have faith than for those who abandon belief altogether.

    –Susan Forsburg

  22. Bill Dilworth

    ” it’s that the Episcopal Church hasn’t had 40 years to figure out what didn’t work, nor has it had much of a home-grown liturgical arts renewal.”

    Try as I might, I can’t make much sense out of this. First of all, I’ve been to a lot of RC masses, and the implication that RC liturgy is the finely tuned product of 40 years of improvement is hogwash. Some of it is okay; much of it is pretty bad. Nor did the Episcopal Church just start looking at music and liturgy last week, or with the last edition of the Hymnal or BCP.

    That the Episcopal Church’s liturgical arts have not followed the US RC lead does not mean that we’re slow learners or have been missing our cues or that we’ve been twiddling our thumbs – it might just mean that we haven’t seen American RC practice as a model to be copied. I guess if we saw our primary task as duplicating the former parish experience of homesick ex-Romans we might have bungled it, but I can’t see that that is – or should be – Job One.

  23. tgflux

    the sense in the departing Roman Catholic that he choosing to leave because the new destination is where he wants to go based on his own desires, and NOT based on The Truth. The leaver is told that he is willfully stepping off the true path for one in error.

    Isn’t the Ultimate Hammer-Drop of that particular Truth-claim “…and you’ll find out when you’re DAMNED for all eternity!”

    TEC can’t compete on those terms: Heaven if you’re with us, Hell if you’re not.

    All we can offer (that the RCC can’t) is “Can you live w/ yourself Right Now?”

    JC Fisher

  24. @Bill (and others)

    The problem here, of course, is… what exactly are we talking about, and what has our experience been?

    I grew up in an RC parish with decent-to-excellent contemporary liturgy, in a Diocese that hosted regular liturgical arts workshops and conventions. The RCIA (which has a strong liturgical component) was fully implemented. Liturgy of the Hours was a regular occurrence.

    So- yeah – when I talk about “the best of contemporary RC practice,” I’m talking about an experience that isn’t particularly widespread.

    But the “free market” approach to hymnal publishing, along with (it seems to me) a widespread culture of experimentation has allowed for a high degree of liturgical development and variety in American Catholic culture. Even now, as the tides are shifting towards a more Roman and Traditional praxis, it is independent publishers and enthusiastic workshops that are leading the “New Liturgical Movement.”

    Development in the Episcopal Church, from what I have been able to tell, has mostly been non-existent or has followed RC trends while lagging behind them (Wonder, Love, and Praise is simply a folk Catholic hymnal published 15 years too late). Rare indeed is a parish like Gregory of Nyssa, that has managed to develop its own liturgical practice in a way that is contemporary, relevant, and respectful of tradition.

    All that to say- I am in no way advocating the abandonment of traditional Anglican/Episcopalian music. The High-Church musical culture, the English choral tradition, and the sturdiness of Protestant hymn singing is much to be commended and preserved.

    But the “liturgical renewal” of the last 40 years was built largely on principles that seem more Episcopalian than Catholic: empowerment of the laity, dialogue with the modern world, equality of genders, re-engagement with early-church tradition, acceptance of sexual and ethnic minorities. In fact, many of the Roman Catholics who are leaving (especially the ones who are coming into the Episcopal Church) were brought up with liturgy that expressed these values, and those values are what eventually bring them into the Episcopal Church.

  25. @Bill (and others)

    The problem here, of course, is… what exactly are we talking about, and what has our experience been?

    I grew up in an RC parish with decent-to-excellent contemporary liturgy, in a Diocese that hosted regular liturgical arts workshops and conventions. The RCIA (which has a strong liturgical component) was fully implemented. Liturgy of the Hours was a regular occurrence.

    So- yeah – when I talk about “the best of contemporary RC practice,” I’m talking about an experience that isn’t particularly widespread.

    But the “free market” approach to hymnal publishing, along with (it seems to me) a widespread culture of experimentation has allowed for a high degree of liturgical development and variety in American Catholic culture. Even now, as the tides are shifting towards a more Roman and Traditional praxis, it is independent publishers and enthusiastic workshops that are leading the “New Liturgical Movement.”

    Development in the Episcopal Church, from what I have been able to tell, has mostly been non-existent or has followed RC trends while lagging behind them (Wonder, Love, and Praise is simply a folk Catholic hymnal published 15 years too late). Rare indeed is a parish like Gregory of Nyssa, that has managed to develop its own liturgical practice in a way that is contemporary, relevant, and respectful of tradition.

    All that to say- I am in no way advocating the abandonment of traditional Anglican/Episcopalian music. The High-Church musical culture, the English choral tradition, and the sturdiness of Protestant hymn singing is much to be commended and preserved.

    But the “liturgical renewal” of the last 40 years was built largely on principles that seem more Episcopalian than Catholic: empowerment of the laity, dialogue with the modern world, equality of genders, re-engagement with early-church tradition, acceptance of sexual and ethnic minorities. In fact, many of the Roman Catholics who are leaving (especially the ones who are coming into the Episcopal Church) were brought up with liturgy that expressed these values, and those values are what eventually bring them into the Episcopal Church.

  26. David O'Rourke

    Turning aside from debates about who does a better job at liturgy and music, to the NCR article which indicated that the leading reason people are leaving the RCC for protestant churches, that their spiritual needs were not being met, here is an interesting approach mentioned in the USA Today article linked to in the posting on the growth of the Unitarians.

    “First Unitarian Church of Denver, where Sunday attendance has increased by 10% a year for the past three years, uses an approach called “passive evangelism” to reach newcomers.

    That means helping people with their spiritual journey, not on persuading them to become Unitarians, said Kirk Loadman-Copeland, the church’s senior minister.

    “People come and they are compelled by what they experience, so they come back,” he said.”

    So replace Unitarian with Episcopal, and reach to those former Catholics who are thirsty on a one to one basis.

  27. W. R. Allen

    Late post on an old thread (and first post ever on this site), but this kind of sums up what drew me to the EC:

    “Showing love of Christ for all; led by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.”

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