Holding Out for a Hero

“All week I have been working as usual.”

How many people in America can say that right now?

And yet, that was the opening line of Brother Jim’s update email to me. I had been thinking about the poor community, how it usually seems a world away, but how now it is living a completely different reality than what the news is presenting about American life.

You see, you can only pause the world when you are living the middle to upper class socio-economic reality. In less stable environments, life continues with other struggles. In the poor communities of Chicago and across the world, people are still dying. They are still hungry. They are still living day to day and cannot hoard or stockpile for any potential threat. They have current threats to survive this very hour.

The support for these vulnerable communities is failing in times like these. Church doors have closed. Non-profits have ceased. Donations have stopped pouring in. In Chicago, volunteers aren’t showing up for the food pantry work because they are afraid. At the St. James food pantry, Brother Jim had to step in to fill the void. Why? “Because people still have to eat.”

I have been angry at some of our leaders of various community sectors for their inability to see these needs. Sure, they can close their doors and self-quarantine, but they are leaving behind problems that will lead to deaths in other ways, be it other illnesses, hunger, bankruptcy and eviction, mental health issues, or domestic abuse. When one domino falls in a poor person’s life, the world comes crumbling down much faster than a 2 week to 30-day quarantine. This population does not have the time to wait it out on their couches with their wine and Netflix and see if things get better in May.

In my own work supporting lay formation leaders within the Church, I have been blessed to see some creative lay leaders and their pastors respond to the nationwide absence of the Eucharist and creatively reach their flock. They have quickly adapted to using social media, they have collaborated across regions, and they have worked extra hours from desperate hot spots to get the job done. They have asked for help navigating these new ways of ministry and are doing wonderful things to bring communal prayer and continued education digitally. And yet other leaders have altogether disappeared.

While it makes sense to follow the advised health precautions, it does not relieve anyone of their duties to help others. When the light of faith is dropped by certain leaders, I am thankful for those who pick up the torch and march on, sometimes on their own.
I don’t think any one of these people see themselves as heroes. They love their work, they believe in their mission, and it is simply a reflex to find solutions no matter what is thrown their way. They don’t have time to be angry at anyone—they have a job to do.

What makes the difference between a coward and a hero? What paralyzes one person in fear and allows another to act with clarity toward a risky but desperate need?
Heroes were not made this week. They were made a long time ago. Heroes were made because someone authentically witnessed the Gospel to them, and it invaded every part of their life. They came to understand what it means to love their neighbor, to trust God, to be not afraid, and to forgive constantly, focusing instead on the love instead of the insult.

Brothers and Sisters of Love will never stop serving. Coming up soon, Brother Jim must find a way to hold a funeral while observing the mandate to gather with no more than 10 people. If you’re ever been to a funeral in the hood, you know that this pretty much tops the impossibility charts. The work may get creative in the next few weeks and months, but Brother Jim and the good heroes of this world will continue to navigate new obstacles and mandates. Because love always finds a way. And when it does, the Kingdom of God breaks into our midst, and the grace makes up for where any of us lack.

The Eucharist has been suspended but go in fearless love and authentically witness to the faith, so that others may still encounter the Body of Christ and we may continue to find the heroes that we need.

–Megan Cottam

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18th Sunday in Ordinary Time / C August 4, 2019

… All things are vanity! For what profit comes to a person from … anxiety of heart…? (Ecclesiastes)
If today you hear God’s voice harden not you hearts. (Responsorial Psalm refrain 95:8)
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. (Paul)
Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions. (Jesus through Luke)

Words of wisdom from today’s readings.

Anxieties of Heart
Some years ago I was with a small group talking to a US senator. The senator said that one of the problems in our country is that too many families are living on the edge financially, just making ends meet. One small bump in the road (death, an illness, loss of job, divorce…) can lead to financial ruin or bankruptcy.

He was right. I find most anxieties are based in reality. These realties go back to Adam and Eve and the loss of paradise (Eden). Loss of security, control, life, health, finances, even affection are real and will happen to us.

In the Old Testament, a number of books including Ecclesiastes and Psalms are called Wisdom Literature. The Wisdom Literature is not based on Revelation from God, but the expression of human experiences of God working in their lives. Thus when the Psalmist says, “Before the mountains were born, the earth and the world brought forth, from eternity to eternity you are God.” (Psalm 90). It is not God praising himself, but the Psalmist praising God.

Likewise, in Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth is looking back on his life and warning us that the anxieties of life controlling our decisions are often signs of vanity. He is warning his listeners the importance of life, God is with us, and life goes on. Remember God is with us.

Jesus and Paul are telling us the same thing from different perspectives. Jesus warns us about making possessions more important that people. Paul reminds us that the world and God are bigger than what we see around us.

When Paul speaks of what is from above what is he talking about? I think he is talking about faith, hope, love, shalom or peace, community, and wisdom that comes from God. These are the things from above. These are the things that are important.

I believe we receive these six things in two ways. First, we receive these things as a gift without even trying. Faith is based on experience. So if today you hear God’s voice harden not your heart. It is our response to hearing God’s voice or experiencing God’s action that determines if the gifts of faith, hope, love, peace, community and wisdom are placed on our hearts.

The second way is through prayer. Prayer does not take all bad things away from us, but it helps us endure. When Jesus prayed, “Father, take this cup away…” (Lk. 22:42), he still had to face the crucifixion and death. Over the long run good prayer gives us faith, hope, love, peace, community, and wisdom. Over the long run good prayer…

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Some are more equal than others.

July 2018, police officers shot a 30 year old man in the back 5 or 6 times. He died on the West-side of Chicago. Anger and protests followed. The police videos showed the victim with a gun he refused to give up. Friends of the victim said the shooting was justified and the protests stopped. More than one person said, “Why didn’t he just drop the gun?”

July 1998, two unsupervised rookie police officers hid among trees after midnight observing drug sales at the Robert Taylor housing development near 42nd and State in Chicago. A lookout noticed movement in the woods, one shot was fired. The bullet penetrated one officer’s body below his vest killing him. The other officer traumatized by the event gave a description of the shooter. Witnesses were held at the police station for over 24 hours until specific people were named.

A 16 year old boy was arrested for firing the gun and tried as an adult (three other men were also convicted one of whom was not at the scene). The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second trial brought a conviction. He was sentenced of 60 years to be served at 100%, the maximum. The Chicago Police Department no longer allows rookie officers to patrol the streets without an experienced officer.

January of 2019, a police officer, with numerous complaints of brutality, was sentenced to just under seven years (he will serve approximately three years) for executing a defenseless 16 year old boy in front of a dozen officers and unknown number of citizens. The killing was videoed. At least three officers filed untrue reports, temporarily protecting the shooter and impeding the investigation. A judge exonerated the three officers saying they made a mistake. At sentencing, the officer’s wife said, “There was no malice, the officer was only doing his job.”

In George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, the animals chase off the humans to create an idyllic animal run farm. A sign proclaims “All animals are created equal” in the hopes of living free and prosperous. Soon the farm evolves and becomes oppressive. The sign changes to “All animals are created equal, but some animals created are more equal than others.

As a child, I was taught that some professions (ministers, public servants, the courts, and law enforcement) were held to higher standards. As an adult I learned this is not true. In a country “where all men are created equal,” some men are created more equal than others.

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Advent 2018

Baruch 5:1-9; Phil. 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk. 3:1-6
A voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!”
John, son of Zachariah, was born a priest within the comfort and prestige of the Jerusalem Temple. He gives up his privilege and chooses to live in poverty at the edge of the desert. Growing older, I wonder if John left Jerusalem with disillusionment from the corruption of Political and Religious leaders he observed abusing their power? He seemed to have a lot of anger- at the crowds (Lk 3:7); the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Mt. 3:7); and the powerful/dangerous (Mt. 14:3-4). While having compassion for the humble, tax collectors, and soldiers (Lk. 3:12-14). He passionately loved Israel.
Human nature doesn’t change. I get disappointed and appalled by the actions of leaders and institutions I’ve trusted, who have protected their honor and their positions at the expense of the people they claimed to serve. I ask, “Where’s the love?“
John called for repentance and people flocked to the wilderness to hear him preach. The season of Advent calls us to repentance as a transition to discovering God in our midst. If God is in our midst, do we feel God’s presence? Many of us do not feel that presence. Why not?
The book of Revelation and the Gospel of John may hold the key. The “sin” of the Ephesians was “Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first … (Rev. 2: 4-5).” The sin was to stop loving and the cure was to love again. It is the problem the Church has faced for 2000 years.
John’s Gospel gives us the commandment to love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you (13:34). Then the Gospel tells us, God will give us an Advocate (Holy Spirit) who will be with us always (14:16).
The heart of the Christian life is to love. My experience with violence and gang members is that a life dedicated to love receives the accompaniment of God

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5th Sunday of Easter / B April 29, 2018

 

Acts 9:26-31; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8.

We know that we should obey Jesus’ commandments. But what are they? Rules? Laws? Are they complicated? Are they difficult to understand? Do we need to study the Bible day and night? Do they concern our everyday life?

The second reading for this weekend lays it out simply, saying “And (God’s) commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandment remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:23-24). In calling ourselves Christians, our commandment is to love one another and trust in Jesus Christ. We do this just as when Jesus walked the earth. Loving one another has a way of expanding because the world needs our love. As we learn to open our hearts, the Spirit cares for us according to John bearing fruit.

In the first reading, after his conversion, Paul tries to join the community of believers. However, Paul has a problem that follows him his whole life and affects some Christians. Paul is combative. In the New Testament combativeness can cause trouble and misunderstanding. John the Baptist, son of a temple priest, leaves the Temple and baptizes in the River Jordan. Even there his enemies follow leading to arrest and execution.

The Apostle James, called “Son of Thunder,” is the first of the twelve killed in Jerusalem. Steven combats and challenges the Jews and is stoned to death. Paul combats Christians before his conversion and “they were afraid of him” (Acts 9:26). In today’s reading, Paul combats the Hellenists (secularized Jews). Later he combats Peter, James the brother of Jesus, John Mark (possibly the writer of the Gospel), Barnabas, diaspora Jews, Greeks, and other Christians. Paul was faithful, insightful, sometimes wrong, often divisive, and on fire for his faith.

Jesus was not so combative, and because of this people were drawn to him. They listened when he asked them to soften their hearts. He was both adored and rejected. He healed, he fed, and then he asked for a change of heart. The healings and feedings were admired and seen as wonders, but his call to a change of heart was often rejected. So he invited and brought to himself a special group of twelve. Even with them the deeper call to a change of heart caused them to betray and abandon him.

The Gospel comes back to the central theme of trusting in Jesus, connected to him with the image of the vine. Being attached to vine produces fruit. Though they turned away from him the resurrection at Easter reattached them to Jesus the vine and they produced much fruit. Believing in the resurrection is our invitation to become attached to the vine. We do it by trusting in Jesus and loving one another. And from it we will produce much fruit.

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Christmas 2017

A year ago I met James at 15th and St. Louis on Chicago’s West-side. He asked if I could help him obtain a State ID card. He had a baby on the way and needed a job. I said no problem. It took ten months to correct his birth certificate, obtain a social security number, and get a State ID card. Fifteen years earlier his aunt was caught impersonating his mother trying to correct his birth certificate. The birth certificate was not corrected and he slipped through the cracks. Every adult and institution let him down.
I am often asked, what is wrong with Black America? My answer is poverty. Not all African-Americans are poor, but gangs, drug abuse, school drop-out rates, poor housing, and distrust of the police and institutions are all related to poverty. Backlash to these actions reinforce the behaviors. It becomes a vicious cycle. Poverty, when not chosen, is destructive for generations.
Recently, the Archbishop of Milwaukee stated the biggest problem for America, the church and the world is secularism. It struck me because I disagreed. The biggest problem is hardness of heart.
The Church and Christians are to be lights in the world. We are not lights in the world when we become afraid, refuse to forgive, reject trusting in God, and in hardening our hearts.
When Pope Francis goes to a refugee camp and takes 12 people to Vatican City, he is not requiring them to be Catholic. He is instead addressing the needs of vulnerable people and showing the world how to act.
Jesus’ message is about Love, Trusting in God, Forgiving, and Not Being Afraid. Jesus was exasperated by the hardness of heart, the lack of faith, and the fear of the people around him, including his disciples.
Hardness of heart is rooted in power, fear, injury, anger, greed, envy, lust, pride, sloth, and gluttony. In essence being human. The solution to hardness of heart is loving one another as Jesus loved us. The bible tells us to love– God, neighbors, ourselves, our enemies, strangers, and the poor. This is how we are to be lights in the world.
Love gets abandoned because of its failures. A bad outcome and love is tossed aside. Loving does not mean allowing ourselves to be abused. Love, in most cases, is not inaction. Would extra love have stopped Hitler, Stalin, or Bin Laden? Unlikely. However love anchored with trust in God finds hope.
How do we trust in God? Seeking, asking and knocking (praying), . Praying is an action that involves listening, discovery, and response. With practice it bares fruit.
Loving and Trusting in God has worked for me. I have seen disasters in not loving or trusting. I have witnessed the softening of hearts of the worst gang members. I have loved and experienced love in return. I have walked into deadly situations and experienced God’s grace. I have seen the despairing experience new life and hope. Anger, fear, and being hurt lead to hardness of heart. Softening of hearts leads to grace and hope.

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If Today You Hear God’s Voice Harden Not Your Heart

Ezekiel 33: 7-9
Romans 13: 8-10
Matthew 18: 15-20

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
If Today You Hear God’s Voice Harden Not Your Heart.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the Torah found God to be both Transcendent and Immanent. And the Jewish religion is based on Faith and Love.

The transcendent God, whom Christians call Father, refers to God creating and ruling the world. The immanent God, whom Christians call the Holy Spirit, is close to his people. For ancient Jews the immanence of God was frightening.

Christians have a third aspect of God- The Incarnation: Jesus. Jesus’ professed the signs and wonders that occurred through him showed the nearness of the “Kingdom of God.” In short the “Kingdom of God” is discovered through Love and the “Kingdom of God” is lost through hardness of heart.

Christianity is based on Love, Faith, and Hope. From Jesus, Christians find the immanence of God hopeful, but often disappointing because we tend to harden our hearts towards God and one another.

Today’s readings tell us three ways to act in bringing about the “Kingdom.” Ezekiel talks of responsibility. “I (God) have appointed (a) watchman for the house of Israel…you (Ezekiel) shall warn them for me… I will hold you responsible.” While Ezekiel was given the burden of responsibility for Israel, we are given the responsibility for our own spheres of influence…. If like Ezekiel, we act with love, even when it is hard, God will be with us and grace will come from it.

Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another…” To live in the “Kingdom” is to soften our hearts, but it is also place that we accept love from others. The obligation then is not like a debt that we owe, but a life that is shared.

Through loving, the “Kingdom” enters our lives, but it is not a Utopia or Eden. Loving leaves us open to being hurt. Jesus was a realist. He experienced life with its pains and disappointments. He tells us that we will be wronged and hurt not only by strangers, but by those who are close to us. This is how to act. “… Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone… If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you …. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, then treat him as an (outsider)…”, but with an openness to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Finally Jesus tells us, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” While we are responsible to one another, do not forget that Jesus is responsible to us too.

So, If today you hear God’s voice harden not your heart.

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2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time / A January 15, 2017

Being a Light in the World

Today’s readings point out four people who were lights in the world.

Being a Light in the World is a theme of Jesus, but he gets it from today’s passage from Isaiah. “It is too little, says the Lord, for you to … raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation shall reach the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6) To understand the hope of our faith, we need to understand the lives of those who suffer. The leadership of Israel has been exiled, without land, wealth, or power. Their identity as a people is on the verge of being lost. Yet the Lord tells the prophet that he will not only be the one to restore the survivors to the homeland, but that he will also be a light to the nations to the ends of the earth.

John the Baptist was a light in the wilderness. People streamed to the River Jordan to hear his words, repent, and be baptized. Even Jesus went to him, was influenced by him and was baptized. John was important, but when John laid his eyes upon Jesus, he recognized Jesus as the Light sent by the Father to save the world.

Jesus’ ultimate mission was to shape his followers or apostles to be lights in the world. These apostles, which mean those who were sent, were a mixed bag including doubters, deniers, and betrayers. Yet these lights, with the help of the resurrected Jesus, would convert a hard-hearted Pharisee named Saul (Paul).

Paul called himself, “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” Paul’s mission was filled with controversy: conversion of Jews, Greeks, Romans, and the communities he was writing to. This did not always sit well with the others like Barnabas, John Mark, Peter, James, and the leaders of the Church. Sometimes he called the church and other apostles beyond themselves, and sometimes they reined him in. That being said, he made the effort to go out into the world and to spread the unifying message of Christ’s love. Paul, in Corinthians, calls us the “Body of Christ.” I think this means that we are to be a source of God’s light in the world. Jesus tells us that that lights (or lamps) are to be placed on a stand for all can see. Unfortunately, many of us put our lights under a bushel basket so that only those inside the basket can see our light.

We must work like Isaiah, Paul, and John the Baptist to embody the love and light of (God) Christ in our lives. Letting our light shine is using our talents and love for the betterment of others, the world, the sick, the injured and the poor. It is not really hard, but it does take a conscious effort. Much is accomplished in making the effort. Much is lost when we don’t.

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Reflection:25th Sunday Ordinary Time

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:10-13

The world yearns for a moral voice, but other voices seem to drown it out. We intrinsically know right from wrong, but we ignore that inner voice because it works for our benefit.

Working after college, I listed my priorities in this order: God, family, friends, myself, career, making money, etc. But comparing that to how I was living, my world revolved around my job as a restaurant manager working almost 60 hours/week, getting one weekend off a month, and working 6 days every fourth week. Like most of us, my income was important, but did it have to rule my life?
Pat Buchanan on the last show of the McLaughlin Group said that the Catholic Church is growing in the South, but declining in the North. At the same time, the North is paying for the Church’s mission throughout the world. Pope Francis favors an Argentinian socialist system that does not work. Francis is no John Paul (paraphrased from memory). Buchanan seems to believe that those who pay for things should call the shots. Francis seems to think that the poor need to be heard and maybe sometimes they should call the shots.
The tension between the wealthy, the powerful, and the poor in religion goes back to the enslavement in Egypt and to the time of Amos. Upon entering the Promised Land, safeguards were installed in Israel to benefit the poor. Amos is concerned, disheartened, and angry that these safeguards are being discarded for the sake of profit. Festivals that by law reorder the status of the people are discarded the moment the festival ends.
Jesus takes a different approach in seeing the same things as Amos. He describes a scene in the way the world works. He holds a mirror up for us to look at ourselves in how we make plans for our benefit. Then he puts us in a dual role of the one in charge and the one who is conniving. We see all as God sees all. Jesus relates to us about being trustworthy in the small unimportant things, because it reflects on our actions with the important things.
To be honest with ourselves, Jesus is pointing to our inmost fears. Money, wealth, power protect us from some of those fears: poverty, homelessness, violence, exploitation, slavery, dependency, difficulties, etc.
Jesus tries to raise our insights into discovering the “Kingdom of God” in our midst and that God loves us as his own creation. But since the “Kingdom of God” is elusive, the dependency of money is tempting. Whether or not money is at the root of all evil, we still have to eat, take care of our housing, and all the other needs that we worry about. Still whom do we ultimately serve: God or money?
Paul asks us to pray for our leaders and our society. It seems so important today, with elections that affect our country and our state. I personally am attending a number of families of people dead from senseless violence, families finding safe and dependable schools, and others looking for any kind of job. Since our poor have been neglected for so long, their growing problems are bringing fear to the rest of our country and even our world. So our elected leaders need to address these problems with wisdom and compassion.
The poor are crying out as they were in the time of Amos and the time of Jesus. The readings tell us to care. Our fears tell us not to act.
So we yearn for a moral voice….

–Brother Jim Fogarty, BSL

 

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Police Trust: Taking a Long View- Part II

brjim2

During the summer of 1985, I was a seminarian working with street gangs at St. Malachy Church adjacent to the old Henry Horner housing projects.  One day a family came to see me.  A teenage gang member had been arrested for a crime, but the officers had humiliated him in public.  I drove the family to the police station.

At the station, the Police Captain met with me, the gang member, his mother, two witnesses, and the two police officers in a room.  For about a half hour all sides talked and an agreement was worked out that the charges would be dropped against the gang member and the actions by the police officers would be forgiven.  The only words I spoke were to the gang member and his mother, “Is this agreeable to you?” They wholeheartedly agreed. I was relieved. Once we got into the car, I was surprised everyone started cursing and said that they were going to get those officers.  Later they asked me if I knew a lawyer to sue the officers and the department.  I realized that being with gang members and their families was going to be complicated.

Twenty years later, in the summer of 2005, I was walking in the Dearborn Homes.  I was looking for information concerning a funeral.  The neighborhood was quiet.  Women told me to be careful because the police were locking people up for trespassing.  While I was writing down the funeral information, I was surrounded by the gang tactical unit of the Chicago Police.  Jerome Finnegan, head of the unit, began bullying, threatening, and intimidating me.  He asked me for my driver’s license and my Catholic Charities ID.  The remaining officers tacitly agreed with Officer Finnegan.  I had a choice to force an arrest or to back down and leave. I left.

Officer Finnegan was recognized for his courage and valor by the Chicago Police Department.  He was considered heroic until he was disgraced and imprisoned for hiring a man to kill a fellow officer who challenged his actions.  Since then, Officer Finnegan’s misdeeds have been a humiliation for the Chicago Police department.  However, many police officers were aware of his actions and instead of reprimanding him, he was promoted and seen as an answer to the problem of gangs.

Generally, the police and gang members hate each other.  They both want to be left alone by the rest of society so that they can do what they want.  Police are taught to shoot to kill.  Gang members know this so they must have a way out in a direct confrontation, or else surrender, be injured, or die.  If they cannot find an escape they will lose.

Gangs are conducting illegal activities and are heavily armed.  In the past 10 years I have known two teenagers murdered for selling drugs on their own, with nobody backing them up and not being armed.  Hustling drugs was the easiest way for them to make money.  One cannot sell drugs in gang neighborhoods without being armed.

The conflicts between the police and gang members are real and dangerous for both sides. Some police officers are known to be fair and trustworthy.  They have proven themselves to do their jobs without adding bogus charges, beating arrestees, and by listening to complaints.  They are able to see the problems in gang neighborhoods and are uncomfortable with regular police tactics.  Yet they do not feel that their suggestions are heard.

These officers, with years of street experience, are the ones who are best able to lead the efforts for reform.  The main problems, as I see it, are if reforms are made then many officers and the police union will resist the changes.  Second, because the situations are difficult, when reforms lead to mistakes or when something bad happens to the police officers things will go back to the way things have always been.  Protests will continue and people will get hurt.

–Brother Jim Fogarty

 

 

 

 

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