yale posterHey all! Sorry for the lack of substantive posts — our ongoing series of guest contributors is still happening, and I’ve been doing some other writing that’s kept me busy. Some of this will see the light of day soon, I promise. In the meantime, I have some exciting information about my speaking and travel this month — in case you wanted to stalk me, I guess!

This Sunday, October 10th, I will be heading to Boston, MA for a few days to hang out with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, do some work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and have a few other (oh so top secret!) meetings.

Then, this coming Thursday, October 14th, I will be speaking at the invitation of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale and facilitating a conversation around the issue I recently wrote about in The New Humanism: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” Please email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com for more information on this event. I’m honored to help host what I am sure will be an engaging conversation around a difficult issue! [Update: RSVP on Facebook here.]

christian-muslim-titleThe following Friday, October 22nd, I will be in Pittsburgh, PA speaking at the Duquesne University Christian-Muslim Dialogue Symposium about my work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and about the role of the nonreligious in interfaith work. You can find more information about the event on their website; it’s a thrill to be invited and I’m excited to both share and learn.

Immediately after that, I will be heading to Washington, D.C. to help facilitate the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in partnership with the White House! Talk about an exciting opportunity. More information on that to come.

White House PictureInterested in having me speak? I love talking to groups and conferences of all sizes and have experience speaking on variety of issues related to religion, atheism, interfaith work, storytelling, new media, blogging, and queer issues. For more on my speaking and travel, and to inquire about having me speak or host a workshop, please check out the Speaking Gigs page.

Want to stay up to date on all of my travel — including for non-work related stuff like weddings? (Man, are fall weddings popular this year or what?!) Follow me on Twitter.

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Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite a unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

hijabToday’s guest post comes from Nathaniel DeLuca, the Program Coordinator at the Yale University Chaplain’s Office. It concerns the French Parliament’s 335-1 vote to ban burqa face coverings.

NB: Hijab refers to both a head covering and modest dress in general. Check out hijabifashionista to get a sense of how fabulous hijabis can be. The French legislation in question would ban the covering of one’s face; in the case of Muslim women, by the niqab, or veil. Definitions of modesty are unique to each community, as are the many types of hijab; it can mean just a headscarf or an entire burqa (made infamous by the Taliban). For the sake of consistency, I’ll refer to the garment in question as a burqa (please do post critiques of my lexicon!).

As a friend and I were catching up on the phone last week, talking about doctor/patient relationships, long-distance boyfriends, and other human interactions requiring extra care and consideration, she exclaimed: “My little sister has decided to wear the headscarf!”

This was not a call to arms but an exclamation of joy. My friend is no stifler of little girls: she is an arch-feminist who spends her summer days getting Iraqi refugees comfortable with the idea of mammograms and pap smears. She is also a woman who is Muslim, a woman who chooses to put a headscarf on every morning. Her parents don’t make her wear it, her imam doesn’t make her wear it, her fiancé doesn’t make her wear it. It would be a lot easier for her to walk down the street in America without it on, without people thinking headscarf-Muslim-terrorist-danger! But she chooses every morning to put it on, to pick one to match her outfit, to pin it carefully in place, to make it look good. She dons a headscarf because it is her right and her free choice.

Little sister chose to wear the headscarf despite her parents’ warnings; it will be very difficult to be the only hijabi in the hallway when she starts high school in the fall, during Ramadan no less. Little sister has also made the more challenging choice – to represent not only her faith, but to act as a trailblazer for other young girls who might not be so brave when classes start. Does she want to wear the headscarf because her big sister does? Probably. Little sister does not live in a cultural or social vacuum, but she also has the opportunities and freedom to make her own choice.

There are women who wear burqas in terror. If they did not shroud themselves every time they walk out of the house, they would suffer savage beatings, gang rape, disfigurement, exile, and murder. These women live war zones, mountain villages, and in the suburbs of Paris. These women have no human rights.

There are women who wear hijab because they choose to. Why would a woman choose to cover herself if she were not so compelled? Ask a woman who wears one (or a little sister). They’ll all give you different answers. The French government will soon take their choice away. They will be denied a human right.

I fully support half of the legislation passed by the French National Assembly yesterday morning. (It must also pass in the Senate and be approved by the constitutional council). Forcing a woman to wear a face covering would now come with a $38,000 fine or a year in prison. Or, at least, I support the spirit of the law, which protects a person’s right to self-determination. If only this law had been passed 1300 years ago, we wouldn’t have to feel the birthing pains now.

The likely consequences of its enforcement are horrifying. The women whose families compel them to wear the burqa will be imprisoned in their homes for the rest of their lives. If they do go out in their burqa and are questioned, what would they say? What would happen to a woman who pointed a finger at her husband, at her mother? These women have neither the choice to disrobe nor the voice to seek justice.

The other half of the law is a slap on the wrist. Choose to cover your face in public? (Masquerade balls get a pass.) That’ll be $185, or you can pick up litter for a day. Women can march down the street in protest without fear of having a year’s wages gleaned. If I were a Muslim woman in France I’d be sewing myself a new burqa to join them.

The ban’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Any law that restricts a person’s human rights (such as freedom to practice whatever religion they choose, even if that religion dictates you can only show your eyes to strangers) cannot be tolerated by a truly free society. When we grant each other the right to self-determination in a plural society, we should expect that some of the choices others make will be antithetical to our own.

Little sister is going to put a headscarf on next month, and maybe every day for the rest of her life. Every day she gets to choose. I know it’s not a burqa, not even close. But what if she did want to put one on, just for a day? Should she be punished for that? I hope to have a daughter someday, and I hope that she is free to put a burqa on — and not just for a masquerade ball.

nat delucaNathaniel DeLuca grew up at a Lutheran summer camp and is now a Secular Humanist and the Program Coordinator at the Yale University Chaplain’s Office. He likes to flip pancakes for hungry students,  create sustainable community service partnerships, and make “queer” and “religious” fit into logical sentences. Depending on conditions, he’s usually strapped to a snowboard or a bike. Right now he’d rather be camping, driving somewhere off the map with Chris Stedman [Ed. Note: Ditto, Nat].

Hey folks! Check out my latest guest blog for the Washington Post, a collaboration with Chelsea Guenther about our experience at Common Grounds (which I blogged about here and here):

Shared faith in the earth

Today’s guest bloggers are Chelsea Guenther and Chris Stedman. Chelsea is a graduate of Agnes Scott College who will be coordinating the multifaith living community for the Cal Aggie Christian Association at the University of California – Davis beginning this fall, and Chris is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School who blogs at NonProphet Status.

Images of black-coated birds and oil-filled waters have flooded our television and computer screens for two months now, and it feels as if there is no end in sight. For the first time in years, we are being bombarded daily with visceral reminders of what can happen when we take our planet for granted. For anyone concerned with ecological ethics, it is not a pretty sight.

One of us is a committed Christian, the other a Secular Humanist. We couldn’t disagree more on the idea of God or what will happen to us when our bodies expire. There is, however, one very large belief we share: The earth is our home.

Two weeks ago, in the midst of the ongoing environmental crisis in the Gulf, a religiously diverse group of students and professionals from across the United States came together at Common Ground, a retreat on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. Hosted by the chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College, and Andover-Newton Theological School, we united to discuss the role moral communities can play in advancing environmental efforts. In the beautiful woods of Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT, the fresh air, bright sun and pounding rain reminded us of the world we share in all of its natural, fragile splendor.

In our largely urban and industrial culture, we have undergone something of a collective memory loss. Though it should be obvious, it can be easy to forget about the concrete things we all have in common. We share physical space in our communities. We breathe the same air, drink water from the same tap and eat food from the same land. In short, our planet is mutual.

All we have and all that we are depend on the health of this place. Whether we got here by careful creation by a loving God or sheer luck amidst randomness, we have nowhere else that we can live. Be it a magnificent gift or a profound occurrence of chance, this planet is ours to repair or destroy. We may disagree on whether or not there is an afterlife, but we know that life in the here and now depends on our taking action together. With a Gulf full of oil and toxic chemical dispersants already impacting the livelihood of Gulf area residents, it couldn’t be clearer that taking care of ourselves means taking care of the Earth.

This is not a call to save our planet from the mess we have made although, as we know only too well, that is necessary. This is a call to open our eyes and look around – to touch the earth and know that we are a part of it because it sustains us. And it is a call to connect with one another. This relationship is reciprocal: The more we connect to the Earth, the more we will connect to one another. The same is true in reverse.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

This is the first of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoans in the words below, is uploading them on this lunch break.

It’s been over a week since I last updated this blog which, if I’m to believe the “rules of blogging,” translates to years of radio silence in the fast-paced realm of internet media. Every resource I’ve consulted about blogging says the same thing: “Blog. Daily.” A week without new content and you may as well call it quits. The blogosphere is a fickle lover.

I haven’t followed that rule because 1) I just don’t have the time to post every day, and 2) I don’t want to publish something that I don’t think is worth circulating. In other words, I’m a sucker for the ol’ “quality over quantity” mantra, even when it works against me in “building a brand.” But this blog has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations – though I’ve just been figuring it out as I go along, NonProphet Status has amassed a loyal and sizable following. I guess it’s you I’m talking about now, isn’t it? So this is the part where I say “thank you for reading, oh loyal faceless reader! I hope you didn’t disappear forever in my absence.”

incarnationAnd I guess I really do mean that. This blog exists for public writing – words that exist for more than just myself, writing that I hope will find its way to readers and stir in them a response of some sort. So it is because of you that I am sorry to have disappeared without warning for over a week, but it was a worthy sacrifice. No, not even that – not merely worthy, and not at all a sacrifice. It was a necessary reprieve. You see, I was in Connecticut for a week for the Common Grounds pilot program, a collaborative project of Yale University’s Chaplain’s office, Andover-Newton Theological School, and Hebrew College on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. It was five days of speakers, workshop sessions, hiking, swimming, sailing on the Connecticut River and, most importantly, community building – all at the beautiful Incarnation Retreat Center near Ivoryton, CT.

The week was full. But I wasn’t just too busy to blog, or too focused on the activities of the retreat – I simply couldn’t get online as the facilities were without internet. It was a total sea change for me; living in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Chicago and working extensively on media strategies for disseminating a narrative of interfaith cooperation at the Interfaith Youth Core, I spend a significant percentage of my day in front of a computer screen. Yet today, as I sit in front of my laptop, it couldn’t be any clearer to me that I’d rather be back in those woods. The internet has lost its luster.

Last week I accessed a part of me that I’ve been a bit disconnected from this year (realizing that it’s been so long is a bit jarring, I must admit). By unplugging from my vast and various online networks, I recalled something I’d forgotten since the three weeks I spent last summer in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota: how important it is for me to be immersed in what many religious folks call Creation. Back in this cavernous concrete chaos called Chicago, I feel the absence of unmolested mud puddles, boundless trees, shoeless days – the undemanding pace of the unpaved world. I miss star-filled skies, penless peacocks, the quiet hum of mosquitos and the echo note of a single drop of water returning to the earth. I miss appreciating rather than ruing the sunrise. I miss uninterrupted birdsong. I miss silence.

Before moving to Chicago two years ago I spent so much time outdoors, but it has proven difficult since I got here. I’d like to re-prioritize and make it happen more often again. Why is it so easy to participate in a culture so disconnected from our natural world that we have to schedule time to escape into it? What does it say that we even distinguish it as the “natural world” instead of just “the world”? As we discussed at Common Grounds, perhaps this disconnect is why it has been so easy for us to destroy our planet. You can’t feel sorry about trashing something that doesn’t really exist to you. Maybe we’ve retreated from retreating to soothe our own guilty consciences.

My return to the infinite urban landscape isn’t the only thing throwing off my groove today; I also miss the people I met. Last week a ragtag team of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Indigenous, Christians, Pagans, Muslims, and me, the self-proclaimed Secular Humanist, spent five days making known our entire selves. A crystalizing moment was standing in front of the collective conference at the week’s end and delivering a rap I’d written with others there, accompanied by a man on guitar, another on harmonica, and a chorus of beatboxers. It’s been a while since I’ve rapped for anyone, and it was a constellating enterprise. I had no performance anxiety; in fact, I was ecstatic to share in that experience with them. We created something of a “sacred space” together where expressions were honored and embraced. It was collaborative and comfortable; our conversations were intimate and important. That sort of extensive exposition isn’t common in day-to-day life, and stepping out of it was a sharp divorce. I made some fast friends; now the community we carved out is dispersed across the continental United States. I miss it, and the person I was in it. I am working hard to bring that person back into my routines.

These profoundly intertwined aspects of the retreat – the solitude of the “natural world” and the warmth of deeply engaged community – proved the ideal situation for some much needed personal reflection. My ship ran aground at Common Grounds and I was forced to slow down and take stock of my rations. It has been pretty smooth sailing lately – I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of accolades and opportunities recently, from awards to speaking invitations to personal celebrations of my work – but those affirmations made it easy to continue the fast pace I established during the throes of my thesis-writing, exacerbating a bad case of “doing, not being.” I’d lost sight of the “slow down and notice” mode I resolved to model. And while I do not wish to deny the opportunities I’ve been so lucky to receive, I’m also rethinking some of my priorities. I’m once more asking the so-called religious questions that come from a shared life. What are my deepest desires? What will I demand of myself? What matters most? How can I make this world just a little more balanced for myself and for others?

I think I began to resolve some of these questions last week but, when it comes to the so-called religious questions, revelation is ongoing. The authority and responsibility of an ethically godless life requires a commitment to this endeavor. I’ll continue to ask, and to listen for answers. And I think that ambiguous process is easier when done in communion with others, such as those I was honored to know last week, and perhaps best facilitated apart from the distractions of our modern world. My heart hurts today, and it’s a symptom suggesting just how important this retreat was for me and why I need to more actively cultivate some of those aforementioned components of retreat. So for this lunch break I’m turning this thing off and going for a walk, to listen instead of type or talk.

Check back this week for another reflection coming from the Common Grounds retreat, on an exchange I had with the Rabbi Arthur Green about working within or without traditional religious paradigms.

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