My faith and action

A scene from the garden at Maison Quaker, Geneva.

A scene from the garden at Maison Quaker, Geneva. Photo: Jez Smith

In 06/2011 David Atwood retires from the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. He came to QUNO to lead the peace and disarmament programme and was later appointed as director. Thirteen years ago he was invited to address Switzerland Yearly Meeting on the subject of Faith and Action. David has offered his ministry to Nayler.


In my now more than three years in Switzerland, this is the first time I have been able to be with you for the Yearly Meeting and to have a chance to meet a wider number of Swiss Friends. I am very glad to be able to have these days with you.

It is also a pleasure for me to be sharing presentations to this year’s Yearly Meeting with Harvey Gillman. Harvey and I have known each other a number of years. We last actually worked together in the summer of 1987, when we were both part of a week long summer course at Woodbrooke in the UK. Since then, we have not often met, but it is always a rich moment for me when we have a chance to see each other.

While I was prepared to deliver this address in French, I am sure that those native French speakers among you will be glad to be spared my poor accent in reading my text. Those of you who are not native French speakers at least might have a better chance of understanding my English than you would my French. So I thank you all for bearing with this presentation in English and I thank those who have worked hard to produce German and French texts. I hope you will slow me down if I begin to speak too fast.

When Nancy Krieger phoned me some months ago to ask me whether I would be willing to be one of your speakers this year and informed me what the theme would be, I must have thought to myself, “It would be good for me to think about this question, so, why not?”. These strands of thoughts are always easier to have several months in advance of a commitment. Of course, the closer the date of the actual commitment, the more frequent the thought comes, “Why did I ever agree to do that?” I have to admit to this thought having been fairly present in my mind as the deadline for submitting the text crept closer and closer.

In fact, having to think a bit more systematically about how this “faith/action” relationship manifests itself in my own life and what broader messages I would like to bring to you on this theme has been a useful, although certainly not an easy, exercise for me. In any case, it is my sincere hope that some of what I have to say this morning will connect with some of your own thinking and experience.

One realisation that I have had in this preparation is how seldom in my daily activities I actually stop to think about this “faith/action” relationship. It is there fundamentally in who I am and the choices I make each day, but most days I just goes forward, acting out of a basic grounding but not necessarily being very conscious of it. Another realisation I have had, however, is how little I do myself to nurture it, even as I understand how important this relationship has been in my own life. I suppose that the “why did I ever agree to do that?” thought is a reflection itself of this. I tend, rather, to bury myself in “activity”, even though I well understand that that activity is poorer and less sustainable the more I fail to do the things I know strengthen me and enable me to go on. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Let me briefly outline for you how I plan to proceed in this talk:

Although Harvey and I had a brief conversation about our different tasks in these presentations, we did not plan them in any sort of co-ordinated way. I am going to speak quite personally. What I have to say will be one person’s experience. What is generalisable from this personal set of thoughts, I am not sure, but perhaps it will be somewhat helpful in bringing each of our individual journeys to bear on the more general theological perspectives which Harvey has sketched for us.

Perhaps it is the mood that I am in or perhaps it is the way the topic for this Yearly Meeting has been phrased, but I do not plan to use this platform that I have to issue any stirring calls to new action by Friends. What I shall do towards the end, however, is to raise briefly one larger point which are is on my mind at the moment about corporate witness by Friends.

We each have a story to tell of how this “faith/action” relationship has manifested itself in our lives. The important features will be different for each of us. We each will have our own list of events/experiences/individuals/practices which have shaped who we are and how we understand our individual place in the world. Let me tell you a little something of my own journey:

I am 52 years old–right in the middle of what has become known as the “boomer” (as in “baby boom”) generation. I am, as you see, white and male. I come from the United States. I am middle class. All factors that have made my life more privileged than most on this planet. All factors that have made possible certain opportunities in my life and protected me from certain adversities.

Given these basic dimensions, if I think about the factors that have influenced my life, I realise that there is little point in trying to figure out which came first: the faith or the action. This relationship is intertwined and inter-dependent. Equally, however, I realise that in my life, being able to articulate in very specific terms the particular faith elements related to the way I have lived and the choices I have made has not been very important to me. For me, it has been a question of broad strokes but little chapter and verse. Similarly, I do not recall any particular moments when I have said, “Right, this is now what I must do.” Instead, there have been leadings of a general sort. What I can say is that there have been times in my life when the rich connection between “faith and action” has been more present in my thinking and in the guiding of my steps than others, and there have been times when one or the other element has tended to take precedence for me. Equally, there have certainly been times of action, when I have realised that there was something missing, fallow periods when the locomotive has kept going somehow, but the spiritual fuel had run low.

So what are the “broad strokes” of faith which have shaped my perceptions and actions and directions? In forming my attitudes, several related factors seem to have been important in my early years. Church-going (I grew up a Presbyterian) was a feature of family life. Service to others – “the social Gospel” – shaped my father’s own career path and also the kinds of things which were deemed important in the way we lived as a family. From the age of 5, I lived in the southern part of the United States. I was aware from an early age of the racially-defined context in which I was living. Two of my earliest memories after moving to the South are of my mother being scolded by an upright white woman because my sister and I tried to sit on the big bar seat at the back of a city bus, a part of the bus where Black people were expected to sit; and becoming aware of such practices as separate bathroom facilities and water-fountains for “whites” and “coloureds”. Perhaps from even this early age, I was aware of a basic contradiction in what I was being taught of the Gospel of Love of Jesus and what I saw in my world at the time.

As a young person, I continued an active engagement in the church, even contemplating at one stage going into the ministry. This involvement in the church was, however, coupled with a growing disillusionment with what I saw of the institutionalised church in relation to the great social struggles of my world at that time, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. In retrospect, my analysis was neither very complete nor very sophisticated, but it was based in my own reading and religious experience to that point and my own evolving understanding of the necessary relationship between religious faith and action in the world. This was long before I had really met Friends and the centrality of this relationship in Quaker thought and practice. When I finally did become acquainted with Friends, I felt I had somehow come home, even though it took me right up until 1996 to actually apply for membership in the Society.

Despite a period of several years in which–in my rather “either/or” thinking of the time–I moved from feeling the to make a difference in the world was through the church to seeing the answer only in the political realm, some basic elements never left me. Further observation of the world and experience in the world over the years has continually brought me back to the importance in my own life of the relationship between the spiritual and the secular, despite the fact that the spiritual or faith dimension has always remained, it seems to me, rather unsophisticated and underdeveloped.

In this sense, my own life really has been a spiral. Beyond being clear fairly early in my life that I wished to use my energies and talents in some way towards the betterment of society, I never really set out in anyone direction. Nevertheless, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the doors that have opened up for me along the way which have enabled me to live out this commitment. Over the last 20 years this has taken the shape principally of work for peace. During this period it has been my great privilege to have been able to have been employed to do this work, first as a lecturer in peace studies at Woodbrooke in Birmingham for nearly 10 years, then as General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and since the beginning of 1995 as one of the team at the Quaker UN Office in Geneva. These experiences have enriched my life. Through them, I have, I trust, been able to make a small contribution to change in the world.

Fundamental to this journey for me has been the faith guide which as Friends we sum up in the phrase “that of God in every person.” This is a tough one for all of us at times. For me, it was necessary to go through the experience of actually being in the military to be able to face up to the fundamental importance of this faith principle in my own life. I realise, nevertheless, how inadequately I live it in facing the violence in myself or implicit in my life-style or in challenging the structures of violence in the world. Over the years, in seeking to measure my actions against this basic principle, I have come to understand more fully the power of love for change in the world. This in turn has re-affirmed in me the importance of nurturing and supporting the principles, the understanding, the tools, and the practice of active non-violence. In this sense, my pacifism has moved progressively from my head to my heart.

The British Quaker Adam Curle, who has been one of the great teachers in my life, has written in his book True Justice: Quaker Peace makers and Peace making (Swarthmore Lecture, 1981) of the ways in which our belief in “that of God” can work in shaping our action in the world, in the following way: “The more we recognise and acknowledge that of God within ourselves, thus enjoying that communion which is the essence of prayer, the greater will be our access to the knowledge that will show us what to do. And the more we recognise God in others, the closer we shall grow to them. Eventually, hardly realising we are doing so, we shall wisely, tenderly and suitably minister to each other, serving by the same token both God and each other.” (p. 31).

There are many ways in our lives when this basic tenet of Quaker thought and belief is tested. Some are more difficult than others. I would just like to give a reflection on this from my own current work at the Quaker UN Office. In one sense, this setting is easy. Geneva is a polite, comfortable, and pleasant environment. Basic diplomatic behaviour enables a certain ease of social encounter, even though the people one meets at times may represent governments or systems which we deplore. Hence, sometimes the difficulty is in remaining focused on the essentials of the issue one is working on and not getting co-opted or seduced by the access which can be achieved. When I stop long enough to reflect on this extraordinary opportunity I have to represent Friends in this long-standing commitment of Friends to working at the international level to “building the institutions of peace”, I have wondered what it is that has enabled this UN work to have played the important role it has. In the face of the power realities of the world in which we live, why should a small handful of persons representing what is, in fact, a very small number of people in the world, be able to achieve the level of engagement on issues of central global importance which I have now experienced first hand? For me, I believe this stems not only from the respect which emerges from those we encounter through the recognition of work responsibly done, but also from the acknowledgement of the usually unspoken but visible principled basis of the work we do. It stems also from the basic approach in this work which takes each person seriously and, even in disagreement, seeks to treat that person with dignity and respect. This decades-long way of thinking and working in this environment builds on itself; the fruits of this history manifest themselves back into the commitment to this work. For me, the spiral is therefore again at work: through the personal experience of the “power” of this way of working, my own faith in “that of God in every person”. and my own belief in the requirement for and strength of non-violent action for social change is strengthened.

At the beginning of this talk I acknowledged to you how difficult I find it to recognise and build sufficiently into my daily practice the things that I know are sustaining and strengthening in my “action” in the world. Commitment to action can too easily become mere activity. Without feeding, without sustenance, activity can lead to exhaustion and “burn-out”. I have tried to think what things for me have provided, despite my own self-recognised limitations, this kind of sustenance. I would like to share a few of these with you.

First, it has been my good fortune in a great deal of my work for peace to have been able to do this in the employ of “faith-based” bodies. Hence, I have been surrounded by and supported by institutional settings from which I have been able to undertake the individual dimensions of my work – whether this has been running workshops for social change activists, organising a new programme for non-violence education and training, or seeking the strengthening of international consensus on problems of light weapons proliferation, to mention but three of types of work in which I have been engaged over the years. This is not a circumstance many have the good fortune to have in the expression of their action in the world, I do realise, but it s been enormously important to me.

Second, I find in iration and strength in the stories of those whose trials and personal sa fice has en so rrmch greater than my own. There is another dimension of this that I would like to touch on later, but here I want to point to what has corne to me through personal contact or in the accounts of individuals who have found it possible to witness to truth and justice, to maintain their faith in the potential for good in the world, despite the most testing of conditions and hardships. Often these will be the stories of those who have become well-known to us all – the Gandhis, the Martin Luther Kings, the Muriel Lesters. Often, however, it comes in a simple story recounted to me of the efforts of one of what Elise Boulding calls “God’s ordinaries” or what Gerald Priestland has called “Everyday saints” – people like you and me doing what we can, where we can. My years with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation were particularly rich with these kinds of experiences, with the many contacts I was privileged to have with persons from many different parts of the world and from a range of faith backgrounds committed to building a more just and peaceful world. But so too have been my years working with Friends, the countless stories of where “relentless persistence” has made a difference.

Let me give you but one recent example. Shortly before preparing this text, two people visited me one day at different times from anti-gun campaigns indifferent parts of the world. The first told me of the work she was doing in terms of its specific emphases and directions, but nothing of what this had cost her. The second, arriving later, knew well the first person. He then recounted to me some of the terrible things the first had been subjected to in her commitment to this cause by those opposed to her activities, with threats made to her life and her livelihood. Instead of being defeated by this, she had become re-dedicated in her commitment. All the while, I suspected that the one recounting this to me also had had similar experiences in living out his own commitment to ending gun violence. This experience for me of meeting these two of “God’s ordinaries” has in turn further strengthened my commitments in this direction, even while understanding better the risks and potential costs that this may entail.

Occasionally this inspiration comes in something I am reading, perhaps just for pleasure or not necessarily as a disciplined form of spiritual refreshment. As an example, I would like to share with you one such piece which was particularly meaningful to me at a certain stage when I was doubting greatly my own ability to keep on with the work I was doing. This comes from a remarkable account by the Irishman Brian Keenan, who was held captive for four and a half years by Shi’ite militiamen in and around Beirut. His entire book, entitled An Evil Cradling, is a testimony to the power of the human spirit in overcoming even the most desperate of situations and even developing compassion for his torturers. We will all have such passages or the verbal accounts of acquaintances and friends, voices which speak to us, even from non-religious sources, calling us to reflect, and reinforcing our own beliefs and deepest feelings.

There is a further dimension of is which s been of special importance to me in nurturing sustaining the “action” dimension of my life. This is the special strengthening which has come through the extraordinary people it has been my privilege to meet in my life. Sometimes this has taken the form of someone taking a special interest in me as a person or in my work and opening a door to enable that work to develop. Without setting out any sort of blueprint in my mind, there are many ways which I do believe my life has had a plan and I have been led. That plan has been helped in its unfolding by people who have served as mentors, guides, teachers, friends – even those who have planted a challenge in front of me which I could not or go around. At other times, this has taken the form of partnerships in action, where the synergy of each person’s gifts can be realised. For me, working in solidarity with others has been important both to my own creativity and to the sustaining of my engagement in action. I could cite many such experiences it has been my good fortune to have. One of the most important recent ones for me has been the association I have been able to have with many of the remarkable people in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Into this very special initiative of the last few years, I have been able to slot my own little piece of the action in Geneva, that very action being enriched and strengthened by the solidarity I have felt with so many in different parts of the world, each working in his or her own way for this noble cause. This experience itself has then helped to reinforce my fundamental belief that we each have a contribution to make and that those individual efforts can make a real difference.

With this last thought in mind, let me return briefly to one of my earlier points. As Quakers we are often pretty demanding of ourselves. For me, one of the most inspirational of experiences is to find Friends at the heart of so many of the efforts at making this a better world. Scratch almost any social cause in the western world at least and you will find Quakers behind it. For example, I suppose I should not have been surprised, during the recent Non-proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee for the NPT Review Conference in 2000, to have found a disproportionate number of Friends among the NGOs present in Geneva. The level of engagement and commitment of others can, as I noted earlier, be both challenging and inspiring. But there is also the danger of feeling inadequate, guilty about the idequacy of one’s own commitment, one’s own sacrifice, when others seem to be doing so much more. This then can become disempowering.

There will always be those who, for one reason or another, are able to give more than I seem to be able to give, who are capable of a greater sacrifice than I. We each have to learn to face our own limitations and the limitations which are imposed on us by circumstance, age, or other factors. We can learn from the actions of others, we can be inspired by the example, but we must also learn to accept who we are and what we are able to do at any given place and time. This is not meant to induce complacency. Far from it. What I am saying is that we each need to corne to know ourselves well enough to be ever challenged to do better while not beating ourselves for our inadequacies.

One of the more challenging pieces of Quaker writing I have read for some time was Jonathan Dale’s 1996 Swarthmore Lecture, Beyond the Spirit of the Age: Quaker Social Responsibility at the End of the Twentieth Century. This was a stirring call to action to Friends to corne to a renewed corporate Social Testimony appropriate to the world of the late twentieth century. From our own perspective, it remains largely unanswered and the challenge he lays before Friends remains of fundamental importance to who we are as a Society. Nevertheless, we have also to look at the kinds of engagement Friends in so many fields make as individuals, including in their own life-styles, to see that what is needed is doing better, not somehow that we are failing. We can also see that there are many ways for us each to make our own contribution to the betterment of the world–and this extends right from the helping hand we offer to a neighbour to corporate action in challenging global structures. In an article based on his Swarthmore Lecture, Jonathan Dale has put this thought in the following way: Daily we are presented with decisions that “face us with ever-renewed invitations to turn our words into deeds. Whether such a practice can change the world we cannot be sure; it will certainly change us – if only because, moment by moment, our faith is being exercised as we choose between the world’s priorities and what the Light shows us.” (Friends Journal, September 1996, p. 15-6).

In my own action, one of the things I also try to keep in mind is that I shall rarely see a direct result in the things I do. This is often difficult to accept. This does not mean the action has failed or been meaningless. If nothing else, as noted by Jonathan Dale, taking it will doubtless have changed me. Or the result may have unexpected effects in unexpected places. While we must strive for effectiveness, we should take a fairly broad interpretation of what we think “effectiveness” means. For example, at QUNO, we need to set our sights clearly on particular issues–we cannot do everything. Sometimes, we can actually show results over the course of time for this consistent, well-organised work, as has clearly been the case with QUNO’s work on conscientious objection, for example. But in our individual actions we are rarely going to see the kinds of fundamental shifts that we all feel are necessary in the world. We have to go on in faith that our actions, combined with those of others, will eventually shift hearts and minds. And there is another dimension of the way we work in which the evidence of the causal effect are likely to remain hidden: this is the impact of the example we have shown, the witness we have made in the lives of those who have come in contact with us in these efforts. In this, we bring our optimism that these results too have an effect and are part of building a better world.

Adam Curle, in one of his “prose” poems entitled “Action”, sums up this way of thinking in some beautiful reflections which I would like to share with you:

We are more powerful than we know; everything we do, say or think has an effect; it sends ripples to the edge of eternity, interacting unpredictably with an infinite number of other actions, words and thoughts and with increasingly unforeseeable results.

So the effects of our actions are largely beyond our control. Any happening they may influence has multiple causes than can never be unravelled; the contribution of what we did is as hard to assess
that of a single strand in a rope.

I once thought I had done something having a good and clear result. A friend and I ran the blockade bringing cash to buy food for a beleaguered and starving people. Learning later that thousands had thereby been fed for many months, I thought: well, that’s very different from the usual uncertainty whether our work ever benefits anyone at all; now, because of what we did, people live who would otherwise be dead.

How naive!

Our dollars had been changed to worthless local currency, then flown out to purchase weapons. Thus was the war prolonged, the famine continued, while many more were killed by the newly acquired guns and bullets.

Once we tried for years to arrange peace talks: failed. Eventually the war ended by battle rather than by negotiation. But instead of the expected vengeful carnage, miraculous reconciliation. The victors, forgetting fostered hatred, took the vanquished to their hearts, healed and fed them.

Our efforts, we were told, had helped to change their vision from one blurred by anger to one cleared by compassion.

So, greatly oversimplifying, what had seemed success was a failure; and failure a success. But since then, on what strange and unexpected shores have those ripples broken; to what joy or suffering have they contributed?

The lesson I learned: forget about results. If things appear to have gone wrong, don’t yield to grief; nor to self-congratulation if they seem to turn out well. You don’t know; the real effects of our actions remain hidden.

So why do anything?

There’s no option; even to do nothing is to act, perhaps in the most worthless of ways. We must have faith that if we purify our hearts rnaking our motives more compassionate, what we do will strengthen, unimaginably, the great forces that can save humanity.

But if, instead of being led by love, we are concerned with the part
we personally play, and crave the gratification of seeming success, we shall weaken them.

(Recognition of Reality: Reflections and Prose Poems, 1987).

Many years ago, I came across a pamphlet by the American Quaker Daniel Seeger entitled Practising the Gospel of Hope in the Nuclear Age (Quaker Religious Thought, Winter 1984). I recently re-read this pamphlet, written in the 1980s at the height of concern about the nuclear arms race. Its messages seem to still have much to say to us today about the appropriate basis for our work in the world as it did then. Here are a few words from its concluding paragraphs, reflecting the vision and hope which must be the foundation for our outward work:

“In a sense we build castles of sand. We need them and value them, because they radiate a certain beauty, reflecting in their fragile moats and turrets the patterns of another place. For though we may be surrounded by hunger, by tyranny, and by nuclear militarism, we are more properly the citizens of a different realm–a city of God, a city whose poise, balance, harmony, and peace is the natural destiny of the Creation. It is a city whose ordinarily dim outlines become luminously etched in the present for those who become awakened to its possibilities, and who in their right toiling are faithful to its laws.

“And in our work, what we do this world is done as if we were to live in it for a thousand years, and what we do for the next world is done as if we were to die tomorrow.” “To practice the Gospel of Hope is to leave despair and complacency behind us and to get down to work.” (p.25).

Perhaps I could conclude this reflection on the personal dimensions of “faith into action” by bringing to you some other thoughts, not my own, but borrowed from a tribute to the lives of his parents by Ralph Levering, one of the sons of Sam and Miriam Levering. Many of you will yourselves have been touched by the lives of these two special people, Quakers who in their words and deeds very much practised the Gospel of Hope. There determined contribution to the evolution of the Law of the Sea Treaty has been a special inspiration to me in understanding what a few committed people can do to change the world. What Ralph Levering draws to our attention are a number of lessons from their lives, which serve perhaps as helpful guideposts for the ways in which we can each live out our action in the world, action emerging from our faith and which in turn is itself nurtured by such action. (Friends Journal, June 1994, p7-9).

You probably will find that you already practice many of these in your own life. Some you may feel are less important to you than others; some you may disagree with. You may each wish to add your own to this list: These are not unachievable goals, but simple guides to daily life. In case you missed them, here they are in brief:

1. “Center one’s life in religious faith and practice.”
2. “Have a purpose larger than oneself.”
3. “Live simply in order to keep one’s life focused on what is really important.”
4. “Never slacken in one’s efforts to achieve worthwhile goals.”
5. “Be grateful for every good thing that happens.”
6. “Develop personal relationships with others who share your goals, and offer sincere praise and thanks to everyone who is helpful.”
7. “Be willing to take a strong stand for something you believe in.”
8. “Try to find common ground and to build as broad support as possible for one’s goals.”
9. “Avoid seeking – or taking – credit for a positive development.”
10. “Have faith that a few committed people can make a difference.”
11. “Be proud to be Quakers and emphasize what we have in common.”

I have focused this presentation largely on my personal experience of the “faith/action” relationship. I have not attempted to tackle this issue in a general way in relation to the corporate witness of Friends in the world. This is another whole topic, one certainly worthy in itself but beyond the scope of my mandate. But I would like to close my remarks with just a few words on this. Just as in our personal lives, we must find our own balance in the relationship between our spiritual life and our action in the world, so in the expression of our corporate life as the Society of Friends we must find a balance. As in our individual lives, a corporate life, driven only by “activ.i srn:”, will wither for the lack of spiritual nourishment. Similarly, however, a corporate expression focused mainly on the spiritual life of the Meeting but with little outward witness, will have an effect on the vibrancy of that spirituality and its relevance in the lives of individual Friends. It has been the work in the world as expressed by Friends which has attracted many into the Society, seeking that something expressed in the lives of engaged Friends beyond simple “activism”. A return to a more “quietest” period in the corporate life of Friends, sornething one certainly senses in current debate within Britain Yearly Meeting and perhaps elsewhere, will cut it off from a vital source of renewal at a time when, except in the evangelical parts of the world of Friends, many meetings are struggling to continue. But this is a topic for another year. But perhaps it is useful to conclude with some thoughts on how others see us. These words come from one of the lectures given on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 to Friends Service Council and American Friends Service Committee, by Gunnar Jahn, then chairman of the Nobel Committee. Although now more than 50 years old, they could have been written yesterday:

“The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting
peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.”

“But they have given us something more: they have shown us the strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit over force. And this brings to mind two verses from one of Arnulf Overland’s poems which helped so many of us during the war. I know of now better salute:

‘The unarmed only can draw on sources eternal. The spirit alone gives victory.'”
(From Drawing on Sources Eternal: Lectures given on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Religious Society of Friends in 1947, The Wider Quaker Fellowship, 1997).

Thank you for listening to my reflections today.

Faith and Action was given as a presentation by David Atwood to a session of Swiss Yearly Meeting, Aeschi, 31/05/1998. Any mistakes in reproducing this edited version of David’s ministry are Nayler’s. After leaving QUNO David is continuing work on peace and disarmament issues from Geneva.

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