ABOUT THIS REPORT
In addition to a national survey, researchers from The Confirmation Project visited congregations, using the research method of Portraiture to understand how confirmation and equivalent practices are practiced in congregations. Portraiture is a method of inquiry that shares some of the features of other qualitative research methods, such as ethnography, case study, and narrative, but it is distinctive in its blending of aesthetics and empiricism in an effort to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life. Portraiture first came to prominence in the works of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. This Portrait is one from a gallery that can be found at www.theconfirmationproject.com/gallery
RECOMMENDED CITATION: Osmer, Richard R., “The Korean Presbyterian Church of Westchester,” The Confirmation Project, Princeton Theological Seminary, October 2, 2015. http://theconfirmationproject.com/gallery/westchester
At first I thought only Christians would be saved, would go to heaven. But I’ve learned that he didn’t just die for Christians but to save everybody, and everybody is loved and forgiven in Christ. And God will deal with each one in a different way as He sees fit. – Confirmand, Age 13
The confirmation program of the English ministry of the Korean Presbyterian Church of Westchester only lasts four to six weeks. But it manages to engage thirteen year olds in serious reflection on their faith in dialogue with The Study Catechism, a new catechism approved by the 210th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1998. The confirmands explore questions about God’s judgment, the atonement, and the salvation of Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu friends. This is serious stuff for early adolescents. It reminds us that young people can think seriously about their faith when they are taken seriously and challenged by good teaching in a loving, supportive environment.
When Jennifer Lewis1 and I visited the Korean Presbyterian Church of Westchester (KPCoW), we were immediately struck by the diversity of the neighborhood. The church is located in one of the more urbanized sections of New Rochelle, New York, teeming with shops and restaurants. The restaurants reflect the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood. Only a short block from the church on Main Street, Mar and Tierra, Olibar, and El Tumi Polleria serve Peruvian food, Rinconcito Luncheonette serves Columbian, while the Little Mexican Café, La Herradura Mexican Pizza and Restaurant, and The Mexican Corner offer cuisine in the traditions of Mexico. Alongside these varied Hispanic eateries on Main Street are The Korean BBQ Grill, Mario’s Pizza, the Dubrovnik Restaurant (Mediterranean Seafood), New China Kitchen, The Dining Lab at Monroe College, and Juliano’s Caterers. Within walking distance of the church, Sweet Potatoes serves African American, southern soul food and numerous restaurants offer Caribbean food, like Mangoville and Alvin & FriendsWalking around the neighborhood is an exercise in moving in and out of the sights and smells of diverse cultures. Imagine being met with the smoky, pungent smell of Korean Barbeque, followed by the roasted pepper waft of Peru’s indigenous foods, then from the corner the bouquet of seafood broth and sweet, smoky lamb from Dubrovnik’s and across the way the tang of collard greens with an oily steady overlay of sweet potatoes.
I could not help but wonder what the Brickyard Bistro meant by advertising itself as serving “American” food. In this little part of America, the diversity of restaurants tells us a great deal about the changes taking place in this neighborhood, New Rochelle, and American culture. New Rochelle is no longer simply a white, suburban enclave with some of the most expensive housing in the state of New York. It is a rich mix of persons of Hispanic, Caribbean, Asian, African, and European descent. Indeed, there is diversity within diversity in the Latino communities from Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, and Columbia, and this is true of KPCoW as well. It is a Korean American church with both Korean and English speaking ministries. It is a church of first generation immigrants, some who have lived in the U.S. for many years and some who have immigrated recently. It also has many second and third generation Korean Americans who grew up in the U.S. and are fully bicultural. It has a strong commitment to supporting Korean and English ministries in the same church.
The ethnic diversity of the neighborhood surrounding KPCoW tells us something about the history and recent changes of New Rochelle. The city traces its roots all the back to a European settlement established in 1688 by Huguenots (French Protestants) who were fleeing religious persecution in France. Many of these settlers came from the French city of La Rochelle, influencing their choice of the name New Rochelle. The city has a total area of 13.2 square miles and lies 2 miles north of the border of New York City in Westchester County. In 1900 the population was 14,720; in 2013, it was 79,446. While historically, New Rochelle has been a predominantly white, wealthy suburb of NYC, this has changed markedly in recent years. The diversity that Jennifer and I noticed in the neighborhood is born out by census data. The racial demographics of New Rochelle are now roughly similar to those of NYC:2
Foreign born persons are 28 percent of New Rochelle’s population, and 36.8 percent of its households speak a language other than English at home.3
The setting and architecture of KPCoW embody the longer history and recent changes in New Rochelle. As you leave Main Street and come into sight of the church, you are immediately struck by the open grassy space surrounding the building, dotted with large, beautiful trees. It is like coming upon a park in the midst of a busy city. The building is striking as well. The walls are carefully wrought, beige rock-work of the sort you might find in a rock wall on a country road. The four large columns and ornate door at the entry to the sanctuary are bright white. So too, are the windows on all sides of the church and the large steeple rising to the right. The building, surrounded by an open, grassy lawn, appears to be from another era. It was designed by the famous architect John Russell Pope and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Pope’s firm is best known for designing the National Archives and Records Administration building, the Jefferson Memorial, and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art in the nation’s capital. The exterior, sanctuary, and chapel reflect the neo-classical style for which Pope was known.
The story of KPCoW becoming stewards of this building tells us something about the ways the past and present are colliding in contemporary American religion. The building has all the trappings of a white, wealthy Presbyterian congregation, seeking to communicate its status and stately traditions to the surrounding community. But it now is owned by a Korean American Presbyterian congregation, which opens its doors to the diverse ethnic communities that are reflected by the restaurants on Main Street.
The Korean Presbyterian Church of Westchester (KPCoW) was founded in 1979. Over the years, it has met in church buildings in Port Chester, Scarsdale, and Pelham, located in the greater New York City area. The Presbytery approached the leadership of KPCoW about moving to this location and assuming responsibility for the building and grounds when the membership of the Presbyterian Church of New Rochelle had dwindled to the point where it could no longer sustain the costs of maintenance. KPCoW gave $50,000 annually for 5 years (2009 to 2013) to the congregation’s budget and invested a substantial sum of money in refurbishing the building. Officially, KPCoW now owns the church building, but its leaders did something unusual. They invited the members of the original church, which continues to hold weekly worship services in the sanctuary, to view themselves as “co-owners” of the building. They committed to maintain the traditional architectural design. As Senior Pastor Taejoon Lee put it:
Both groups liked this. It helps us to remember that the church is not the building. It’s the people, the fellowship, the mission we’ve been given. We see ourselves as stewards of the building. It is not our church; it is the House of the Lord. We also make the building available to other churches in the community and organizations that need a place to meet.
Currently, the congregation shares its space with an African American congregation, a charismatic Brazilian congregation, and a charismatic Spanish-speaking congregation.
The congregation also takes very seriously its own cultural identity as a Korean American church. In our interviews of parents and confirmands, all noted that the children and youth of the church attend schools with very few Asian Americans (only 4.2 percent of New Rochelle’s total population). The comment of one confirmand was typical:
I attend a majority white school. I don’t really have any Korean friends there. That’s why I really like this church. I don’t have to explain myself to my friends here. They get what it means to be Korean American. I really love the way Pastor Yang runs the youth group. It is fun. It’s about fellowship. I mean I get a lot out of it, but I don’t feel the same kind of pressure I do at school.
The church, thus, is one of the few places in these young people’s lives where they gather with peers who share their cultural identity. They experience racial and ethnic pluralism every day at school and in their neighborhoods. The church is a community where they can affirm and explore their own cultural identity in the context of the Christian faith.
The parents of confirmands view this as one of the most important reasons they attend this church. Many travel from other suburbs around New York City to attend the church and even as far away as Connecticut because they believe in the congregation’s commitment to both Korean and English ministries in the same congregation. As one parent put it, “We like this church because the KM (Korean ministry) and EM (English ministry) are together. It is multi-generational. In most EM churches, it’s just the same age group. They don’t get to be with any older people who have strong ties to their Korean heritage.” We had been alerted that KPCoW was somewhat unusual in its commitment to both a KM and EM by Timothy Son, Director of the Asian American Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. “The congregation,” he offered, “is interesting because it is intentionally pursuing a Korean ministry and an English ministry in a single church. Often, these ministries cannot co-exist and split as the second generation grows older and seeks forms of worship and leadership that are very different than first generation Korean American churches.”4
In stark contrast, this church is all about keeping the KM and EM together. This is embodied in the cordial and mutually supportive relationships between Senior Pastor Taejoon Lee, who leads the KM, Associate Pastor Jonah So, who leads the EM, and Youth and College Pastor Daniel Yang. Pastor So has been at the church for thirteen years. The average stay of non-senior pastors in Korean American churches is around 2½ years. Rev. So is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry in this area and commented on his research and experience:
Typically, an English Ministry starts as the children of a Korean American church grow up and want a more Americanized form of worship and Christian education. Even after many years, the older Korean adults often treat the members of the EM as children. They see this ministry as a kind of glorified youth group. They won’t let them serve as Elders or Deacons. Many of my friends from seminary who were assistant pastors in Korean American churches have left the ministry. They couldn’t take the way they were treated. You can sum it up as Elder Knows Best. They have no say in what they do; they are given menial tasks at the whim of the senior pastor.
He continued by noting how different his experience has been at KPCoW:
My relationship with Senior Pastor Lee has been very, very different than this. He is open to my ideas and, many times, has gone to bat for the English Ministry. He earned my trust, and I’ve been able to learn from him. He’s mentored me. In a sense, our very good relationship is a model for the whole church. We’re still learning and struggling in the church how to negotiate the differences between the KM and EM, but I would have to say we are in a symbiotic relationship. Probably, the best symbol of this is our fellowship meal right after worship. We worship separately in different spaces. One service is in English; the other, in Korean. But after worship, we meet in the fellowship hall to share a common meal. It is traditional Korean food that is prepared by the members of the EM.
Building bridges between the Korean ministry and English ministry is central to the identity of KPCoW. Pastoral leaders, parents, and confirmands all shared, in one way or another, that they really appreciate having both ministries in the same church. They see the need for distinct KM and EM ministries because the issues facing each group are different. First generation members of the church must learn a new language and adapt to a new culture. The church is a place where they are loved and accepted within the cultural norms of their Korean heritage. This is why a KM is needed.
Second and third generation Korean Americans face the challenge of negotiating identities that are fully bicultural. Parents must decide, for example, what they will affirm, reject, or modify in both traditional Korean patterns of education and the Western education their children receive at American schools.5 In our interviews of former confirmands who are now in college, we asked them if they feel pressure to do well at school. To the person, they claimed they do not receive much pressure from their parents who are second generation Korean Americans. But they also shared in passing that they are good students. One college student stated: “My parents are pretty lenient about school. They don’t push as hard as a full Korean family. But I get mostly As. They’d probably put more pressure on me if I wasn’t doing well.” This kind of negotiation of cultural identities is going on all the time in the lives of individuals and families participating in the EM. This is why this ministry is needed.
But it is the interaction between the KM and EM in the same church that is distinctive in this congregation: two ministries, one church. The church offers Korean School for the children, giving them the chance to learn to speak and read Korean and to enhance their familiarity with Korean customs and traditions. Its overall organizational pattern remains very Korean. Each age group has its own “department” and separate worship services. But all age groups come together for a fellowship meal of traditional Korean food immediately following the adult services. Until recently, Elders and Deacons were entirely from the KM. But this has started to change. Members from both ministries work together on the annual mission project. As older members of the KM have retired and more blue-collar immigrants have joined this ministry, the EM has begun to support a much larger percentage of the financial budget. While traditional Korean patterns of authority and deference are evident in the formal names used to refer to pastors, elders, and deacons and other patterns of interaction, it also is clear that less formal, more Americanized patterns of relationship are present. Pastor Yang was constantly engaging in banter with the youth, and the youth were teasing him every bit as much as he was them.
OVERVIEW OF CONFIRMATION
The brief portrait of KPCoW offered above helps us understand why there are two confirmation programs in this church, not one. Many members of the KM were baptized in the past but never received any education in the basics of Christianity or made a public profession of faith. Confirmation in the KM, thus, is typically offered for adults. Senior Pastor Lee teaches in a traditional Korean style. He offers four lectures on the basics of the Christian faith. The EM confirmation program is offered to young people when they reach the age of thirteen. Sometimes, however, it includes older youth and even adults who prefer learning in English. The confirmation class I observed, for example, had an adult who immigrated from Taiwan and is married to a Korean woman whose parents participate in the KM.
The EM confirmation program meets for four to six sessions. The session I observed had five participants. They were seated around a long table in the meeting room used by the Session. Fruit, snacks, and drinks were spread out on the table, and a Deacon replenished them one time while the session was going on. The group took a break in the middle of the two-hour meeting.
As the minister in charge of the EM, Pastor So is the teacher of this confirmation program. His teaching style was a nice blend of traditional Korean and American patterns. In traditional Korean teaching, the teacher is like a sage with wisdom to pass on, and students are to listen attentively and begin to learn this wisdom. As one church leader described this approach, the teacher is “didactic,” offering “authoritative teaching.” Asking questions implies that the teacher has not done a good job. In traditional American teaching, the assumption is that students must be actively involved in constructing knowledge. Questions are encouraged, and students often are expected to challenge one another and even the teacher. They are to “think for themselves” as American educators sometimes put it. Pastor So blended these two patterns together. On the one hand, he was like a sage with wisdom to hand on and, at points, offered authoritative teaching. On the other hand, the basic pattern of the session was based on the questions the students brought to the class.
One of the reasons Pastor So is able to weave these two patterns together in such a creative and productive way is his decision to have the EM confirmation program focus on the confirmation version of The Study Catechism. While catechisms are sometimes used in Presbyterian confirmation programs today, this is much less common than in the past, when confirmation classes often studied the Westminster Shorter Catechism.6 While the EM confirmation program values the personal, relational, and experiential dimensions of faith, it does not consider them the primary goal of confirmation. Rather, it affirms the importance of helping young people sort out what they believe in dialogue with an authoritative statement of the church’s faith. The Study Catechism is divided into four sections, which incorporate the traditional material covered in catechetical instruction: Prologue, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. The confirmation class focuses on the Apostles’ Creed. Every week the confirmands are assigned part of the catechism to study before coming to class. They are to choose one question they find helpful and a second question they find confusing. Each session focuses on these questions. The catechism raises the issues, but only as students articulate the questions they find helpful or perplexing.
In the session I observed, the class members had completed studying the catechism and were now reviewing the material in order to write their own statements of faith and personal testimonies. On Easter morning, the confirmands would be examined by the Session in the fellowship hall. Tables for Session members would be set up on one side and tables for confirmands, on the other. One-by-one the confirmands would come to the center of the hall, where they would read their statement of faith and testimony and, then, be asked several questions by a Session member. These questions are prepared in advance by Pastor So. After this examination, the Session would vote on the confirmands. This is followed by a celebratory breakfast for the confirmands and their families and, then, a special confirmation service. During this service, instead of laying his hands on each confirmand after they make their confirmation vows, Senior Pastor Lee would wash their feet. This is a reversal of the hierarchical relationship between persons in positions of authority and youth in Korean culture. It symbolizes the ways the gospel transforms cultural identities and relationships.
With the confirmation examination by the Session looming before them in the near future, the confirmands were fully engaged in the session I observed. The following is a partial transcript.
Pastor So began by welcoming the students and introducing me. He reminded them that this was a review session and that later he would give them several samples of statements of belief and testimonies written by previous confirmands. He then asked them if anyone had questions they would like to share. Several people talked and then a thirteen-year old girl spoke.
Joy: I have three questions (laughs). One of mine was 37. (Reads)
Q 37: How do you understand the words that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead”?
Like everyone else, I too must stand in fear and trembling before the judgment seat of Christ. But the Judge is the one who submitted to judgment for my sake. Nothing will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.
I had never thought much about God’s judgment before. Of course, I had heard about it, but I didn’t really think about it. Sometimes, this makes me afraid because God knows my true self and what I’ve done. Sometimes, I think he’ll just see the best, but sometimes the idea of judgment kind of scares me.
Teacher: Now I want to hold off and focus on this before we go on to the other questions you have. How would we use what we’ve learned to respond to this honest concern? I’m going to pose the question and turn it over to you (looking at the other confimands). OK, your classmate says: “I’m afraid of Jesus coming back again because he’s going to judge us and I’m worried about what he is going to find out about me.” Now that’s the fear that Joy just shared with us. Based on what you’ve learned in this class, what is one thing you might say to Joy to make her more comfortable with this idea?
Christina: He loves us more than we can comprehend.
Teacher: Yes, that’s good. He loves us more than we can comprehend. That changes the way we think about Jesus’ judgment. He is not coming back for revenge. I like revenge. You like revenge. (laughs) But one thing that we’re learning here is that God loves first…so much more than we’ll ever know. And in Jesus Christ that means something. (Looking at Joy) Would you read the second line of the answer in the catechism.
Joy: (Reads) But the Judge is the one who submitted to judgment for my sake.
Teacher: So who is the Judge?
Teacher: Ok, so read the answer again replacing “Judge” with “Jesus.”
Joy: But Jesus is the one who submitted to judgment for my sake.
Teacher: Let me give you an example. Stand up. (Joy stands up and comes over to Pastor So). Let’s imagine a scenario, a kind of judgment scene. If you are guilty, you’re dead. If not, you live. The judge says “Guilty!”, so there’s a bullet coming toward you. (Points his hand at Joy like a gun) I know its crazy, but the judge who says you’re guilty, now says “Get out of the way” and takes your place. (Walks over to Joy and stands in her place as she moves to the side) He comes over here and takes your spot. So now you don’t take the bullet, because he takes it. The idea of Jesus coming back to judge is frightening because Jesus is going to find out everything we’ve done wrong. Everyone should be terrified. But knowing everything about us, Jesus still comes and takes that bullet for us. As Christina put it, he loves us more than we can comprehend. (Pauses) You had another question?
Joy: Yes, 38. (Reads)
Q: 38: Will all human beings be saved?
No one will be lost who can be saved. The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. Three truths above all are certain. God is a holy God who is not to be trifled with. No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
At first I thought only Christians would be saved, would go to heaven. But I’ve learned that he didn’t just die for Christians but to save everybody, and everybody is loved and forgiven in Christ. And God will deal with each one in a different way as He sees fit.
Teacher: What I say here very boldly is that I don’t talk about things I don’t know. I talk about things I do know. I can’t talk about who is saved and who is not because that’s the judgment of God, and I don’t know God’s judgment. But I do know that God loves us, and I’ll talk about what I know. (Pauses) You didn’t go to the revival yesterday, did you, Joy.
Joy shakes her head no.
Teacher: You went. (to Christina)
She nods her head yes.
Teacher: Very interesting what you heard there, right, about heaven and hell in light of what we’re talking about. The preacher was talking about sharing the gospel with your friends so they won’t go to hell. But we don’t know who is going to hell. The judgment belongs to God, and we don’t know how God judges particular people. We need to leave space for God. Some traditions don’t want to leave space for God, and they go ahead and fill it in. They try to force people or pressure and manipulate people into being saved. But that’s not our task. We’re supposed to show the love of God in Jesus Christ and leave judgment up to God. We want our friends to know God because He’s so loving, so forgiving. God alone can bring meaning and purpose to their lives. Of course we want to share this with our friends but not to scare them by talking about hell. (Pauses) James, did you find something that you want to share?
James: Yes, 14. (Reads)
Q 14: If God’s love is so powerful, why is there evil in the world?
No one can say why, for evil is a terrible mystery. Still, we know that God’s triumph over evil is certain. Our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is himself God’s promise that suffering will come to an end, that death shall be no more, and that all things will be made new
Teacher: What about it spoke to you?
James: That we don’t know why there’s evil. But we do know that Jesus Christ suffered for us, that he was raised from the dead, that he gives us hope.
Teacher: Can you read the second and third sentences there?
James: (Reads) “Still, we know that God’s triumph over evil is certain. Our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is himself God’s promise that suffering will come to an end, that death shall be no more, and that all things will be made new.”
Teacher: So why is there evil? We don’t know. It just is. How do you respond to this? (Pauses) A lot of time people come in and want answers. But it is important that we leave space for mystery. We can explore the mystery but never really completely understand it. Just because we don’t understand something fully that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it and try to figure it out. And that’s true of evil. We can explore it and try to understand it, but it remains a mystery. How we respond to evil is probably the important thing.
This sort of dialogue continues. After a break, Pastor So shifted to talking about the statement of belief and testimony each confirmand would write in preparation for their examination by the session.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Confirmation at the Korean Presbyterian Church of Westchester is like dining at one of the restaurants on Main Street, getting to taste the special, flavorful offerings of an ethnic group that is surrounded on all sides by other forms of cultural diversity.
Perhaps, above all other learnings, my encounter with the KPCoW confirmation program was an important reminder of the ways cultural identity and Christian identity must both be taken seriously. Pastor So teaches in a way that blends together elements of Korean and American educational patterns. He models what the church is trying to do by bringing together a KM and EM in the same congregation. Moreover, he takes it for granted that the confirmands would study the material in advance and be prepared to engage in dialogue around the questions each would bring. He assumed that these Korean American young people value education, an important cultural norm in this community. This is why he could engage them in such an intellectually demanding fashion. Confirmation at the Korean Presbyterian Church of Westchester helps us realize how important it is for all congregations to take their cultural identities seriously. Caucasian congregations are apt to forget that they too are rooted in Euro-American cultures and to overlook the ways their “whiteness” influences the communication of the gospel. Confirmation works best when it is contextualized in a culturally sensitive but transformative way.
I also learned that young people today are willing to engage the faith in an intellectually serious way if they are taken seriously themselves. This involves setting culturally appropriate expectations for confirmation. But, even more, it is a matter of caring passionately about young people and working creatively to teach and love the gospel into their lives.
Finally, I learned how important it is to be clear about the purpose of confirmation in the overall context of faith formation in a congregation. Pastor So describes this in the following way: “In our church, confirmation is designed to help people learn the basics of the faith and to profess their faith publicly. They are encouraged to go to New Members classes if they want get a better idea of how our church is organized.” Pastor Yang offers a highly relational, affirming, and interactive approach to young people in the youth group, in their special worship service, and in the church school. The intense, short-term focus of confirmation on exploring intellectually one’s beliefs as a Christian is only one element of faith formation in a congregation that does a wonderful job helping its young people negotiate their identities as Korean Christians who are fully bicultural.
- Jennifer Lynne Lewis was a first-year Masters of Divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary when she conducted a site visit with me to KPCoW. Many thanks for her able assistance. ↩
- QuickFacts, New Rochelle, U.S. Census Bureau, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36/3650617.html, accessed August, 2015. ↩
- Ibid. The same source reveals that in comparison to NYC, the residents of New Rochelle are better off than NYC. The median household income is $67,094 compared to NYC’s $58,003; it has a lower percentage of persons living below the poverty level: 12.4 percent to NYC’s 15.3 percent. ↩
- Son’s observations are born out by other scholars who have studied the painful and, often, acrimonious relationship between senior and assistant pastors. See, Danny Han, Hope of Reconciliation: Connecting First and Second Generation Pastors (Los Angeles, CA: JAMA publishing, 2013), Kindle Edition, loc. 59 ↩
- Research reveals that, traditionally, Asian American families place great emphasis on educational achievement. Parents invest heavily in their children’s success at school. This, in turn, has created a cultural stereotype of the Asian American Success Story: All Asian students are hard-working, self-disciplined, and achievement-oriented. See, Jin Li, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Wendy Walker-Moffat, The Other Side of the Asian American Success Story (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995). ↩
- Prior to the first decades of the 20th Century, the Presbyterian Church did not use the term confirmation, referring to these kinds of classes as “Communicant Classes.” For a historical overview, see Richard Osmer, Confirmation: Presbyterian Practices in Ecumenical Perspective (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1996). ↩
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