illustration of a woman reading

Liminality as an Incubator for Growth

At the beginning of 2020, we never imagined what was in store for us as a family. We never thought that the entire family would have to be quarantined for 50 days due to COVID-19 infections. We also did not know that the pandemic would disrupt the education of our children and change the mode of delivery of my lectures on Islam. Fortunately for us, 2020 was not only a year of quarantine and disruption but also a year of crossing borders and moving to a new country. We moved from Montreal to Los Angeles, and I joined Fuller as an associate professor of Islamic studies in the midst of the global pandemic.

When we are on the threshold of a crisis like COVID-19, anthropologists say that we are inhabiting spaces of liminality. We are not in a position to go back to a world of pre-COVID times. At the same time, we don’t know what the post-COVID world will be like. We are in between one state and another. In this article, I will be reflecting on my liminal journey: the in-between spaces that I have inhabited at various stages of my life and how they transformed my understanding of the world, the church, and the gospel. I hope that my reflections will inspire us to discern what we are called to do while we wait patiently to transition into a new postpandemic world.

The Unique Opportunity of Liminal Spaces

The term liminality originates from the Latin word for “threshold” (limen), which refers to being in an in-between space or on a threshold between old and new stages. The concept of liminality has its roots in the work of the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who studied ancient societies’ rites of passage, such as birth or marriage, that act as markers of growth and change on an individual’s journey from one stage of life to another, or from an old stage of growth to a new stage.1 Van Gennep understood liminality as an individual’s transitional state between these two conditions of growth and change. While existing in an in-between space, an individual has already passed one phase of life but not yet arrived at a new stage of growth and maturity. “It is like the time when a trapeze artist lets go of the bar and hangs in midair, ready to catch another support: it is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness,” wrote Paul Tournier.2 Liminality is a state of unsettling, disorientation, and ambiguity where an individual cannot go back to where they were before, though it was a familiar world, defined by boundaries and norms. At the same time, while inhabiting a liminal space, one cannot yet integrate into the new world, which is an unknown territory with unfamiliar boundaries and untrodden paths. Theologian Shelly Rambo’s words written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina capture the feeling of being in a liminal space: “Life as it once was cannot be retrieved . . . life ahead cannot be envisioned.”3

The COVID-19 crisis set us on a liminal journey. The pandemic has disrupted the socioeconomic, religious, and political landscape of our families, communities, and the world. Our normal prepandemic world and habitual routines have been suspended and are starting to fade away from our memory. We have become immobile and stuck within the four walls of our homes, looking at our computer screens, lamenting with millions of people who have lost their loved ones. For me, the important question at this juncture is, what should we do as we pass through this liminal phase in life? Should the desire to go back to our prepandemic “normal” life be what occupies our minds? Or does a crisis like COVID-19 provide us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves to embrace a postpandemic world with its challenges and opportunities?

We know that liminality is full of vulnerability, but it is also laden with potential for growth and development. Liminal space can be a transformative, renewing space, changing us and giving us new life. This particular in-between time is a space where the Spirit of God is active and ready to equip us for God’s mission in a postpandemic world. It is a place of hope, trust, and reimagination rather than despair, denial, and dissolution. God is inviting us to imagine it as an opportunity to liberate ourselves from the feeling of being stuck in the present and to embrace what we are called to become in the future.

A Journey of Growth Through In-Between Experiences

Anthropologists consider education as a rite of passage and a student’s time at school as a liminal phase, passing through doubt, anxiety, fragility, and vulnerability. Viewed in this way, education should be much more than just teaching information. Rather, it should help students to understand themselves and the society in which they live and can thrive. Education should prepare students to live in an interwoven world and empower them to face challenges and opportunities in the next stage of their life, after finishing school.

I grew up in Kerala, a state on the Malabar coast, in South India. Kerala represents one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world, which is believed to have begun with the arrival of Saint Thomas during the first century. Kerala Pentecostalism, which is one of the unique expressions of this worldwide movement, is the crucible that shaped my early Christian upbringing.  It began in the first part of the 20th century as a movement of people—women, the economically deprived sections of society, and the Dalits, or “untouchables”—who did not find a place of belonging among traditional Christianity in Kerala.

Kerala Pentecostals read the Bible in a way that created a new counter-public for these sections of society. The movement’s countercultural dimensions were evident in its theological development and identity formation. Consequently, Kerala Pentecostals rejected all kinds of worldly pleasures, including adorning the body with jewelry and colorful dresses, and they never celebrated Easter, Christmas, or other Christian or cultural festivals. However, as the movement was institutionalized in the last few decades, its liberative edge became blunt, making the movement like any other denomination within the landscape of Kerala Christianity. Though its distinct doctrines continued to serve as an external skeleton of its identity, they overlooked larger issues of justice and thus failed to envision women and Dalits—who constitute the majority of church membership—as people created in God’s own image, with equal rights and dignity.

Once I began my theological education, navigating that liminal phase outside of the tradition in which I grew up helped me to read the Bible in a fresh light. I was able to realize the doctrinal rigidity and moral conservatism of my church, which paved the way for me to critically challenge the tunnel vision of my ecclesial community.

The opportunity to work at the United Theological College (UTC), Bangalore, the premier ecumenical theological college in India, was another liminal phase of my life. People from the Eastern Orthodox tradition and various Protestant backgrounds were represented in both the student and faculty bodies. People from various linguistic, regional, and cultural backgrounds added to UTC’s creedal diversity, which challenged my preconceived notion of an authentic church. Growing up, I was taught that all those who are outside the boundaries of my church, both Christians and non-Christians, are destined for damnation. Everything was defined in black and white terms and, therefore, mission was understood in the limited sense of preaching the gospel to all outside my church. From that perspective, UTC was my mission field, where I had a responsibility to preach the gospel to everyone there. Life at UTC, then, became a period of confusion, soul searching, and disorientation. After first seeing myself as a missionary, I began to learn from my non-Pentecostal students and colleagues, breaking bread and fellowshipping with them until, eventually, I became a convert. Later, working at the United Theological College challenged me to reimagine God and his mission beyond the borders of my church. I realized that God’s Spirit is not confined to the doctrine and practices of a particular denomination of Christianity. Our calling is to participate in God’s liberative act and share its good news with the entire creation. UTC’s motto of “not to be served but to serve” fundamentally reshaped my theological thinking and vision of ecumenical partnerships.

The next chapter in my liminal journey was initiated by my decision to pursue graduate studies in non-Christian religions. When I completed my undergraduate degree in theology, I was well aware that neither my parents nor my local congregation were able to financially support my further studies. It was my determination to pursue higher studies that primarily motivated me to go for Islamic studies at the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad, India, which sponsored my studies. Right from the beginning of my religious studies program the famous words of Max Müller caught my eye: “He who knows one, knows none.”4 These words motivated me to step out of my tradition in order to delve deeper into Islamic studies and make sense of the faith and practices of Muslims. In doing so, my study of Islam not only taught me the traditions of various Muslim communities around the world but also helped me to understand my own faith tradition in ways that I had never comprehended. My studies deepened my commitment to the church and its mission and taught me to communicate the gospel in language that is palatable to Muslims. Opportunities to closely engage with students and teaching assistants who practice Islamic traditions, along with close friendships with Muslims, taught me a lot about the remarkable diversity of the Islamic world and to love my Muslim neighbors as myself. My studies also involved exploring “theology of religions,” a discipline dealing with Christian attitudes toward other religions, which helped me to discern the work of the Spirit throughout the scope of history and geographical spread. In this phase of my schooling, studying in between various religions, I came to the understanding that God’s mission is not limited to any creed, community, or nation; rather, it encompasses the entire creation and we are called to participate in it.

Another rather long phase of my liminal journey began when my family moved to Montreal in 2002 so I could pursue my doctoral studies at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies. Kerala has a long history of migration, nationally and internationally, and as a result Malayali (people of Kerala are called Malayali because they speak the Malayalam language) diaspora can be found in every nook and corner of the world today. “You will inevitably run into a Malayali, wherever you go,” continues to be an inside joke. In Kerala, opportunities for migration are considered a blessing of God and the result of one’s parents’ and others’ prayers. So I was grateful to God as well as excited about the opportunity to pursue my doctoral studies in Canada.

The liminal experience of my life in Canada gave me new insights about my upbringing in India as a man in a caste society. I became more aware of my gender prejudices and caste privileges, and moved toward becoming critical of male chauvinistic and caste-
oriented norms that guide the behavior and thinking of my friends and church members. Every Indian has a place in society based on their birth in a certain gender, caste, or family. An individual’s social capital in India, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, is integrally related to their cultural and economic capital.5 As an immigrant in Canada, my experience of emptiness, anonymity, and pennilessness—without any social capital—taught me the relationship between caste and social capital. Additionally, my gender prejudices were challenged: unlike in Kerala, in Canada women are treated as equal with men, and there is nothing that women are exempted from doing. For example, driving heavy duty vehicles is considered a man’s job in Kerala, but in Montreal I found a woman driving a public transportation bus. At the beginning, I was careful about riding those buses driven by women. In a few months’ time, however, I realized that women bus drivers have a better safety record than men. Eventually I realized that the division of labor based on gender is a social construct, rather than a norm evolved due to biological reasons.

Preparing Now to Address the Pressing Matters of the Future

Now it is not just myself but my institution, Fuller Seminary, that is in a transition period and inhabiting spaces of liminality. While in this liminal period, we should be waiting on God to equip us to serve the church and her mission in the postpandemic world. Several issues that we have already addressed  before COVID-19 will continue to invite our attention in the future. Urban homelessness and affordable housing are the issues that churches continue to grapple with. Another matter to be addressed for our future world is how churches can be equipped to develop ecumenical relationships with other churches and interfaith engagements with people of other faiths, acknowledging that churches cannot fulfill their mission without networking and collaborating with other churches, as well as non-governmental and non-Christian organizations. In this instance, it is important to note that there is a direct correlation between ecumenism and interfaith engagements.

Migration is another issue that needs the attention of churches and Christian organizations. European countries and North America cannot sustain their economies without an uninterrupted flow of immigrants from the South. The question is, how can we prepare churches and Christian organizations to shoulder the tremendous responsibility of serving millions of migrants? Immigrants are coming from different countries with their own religions and cultures. The meaning of hospitality is an important issue to be addressed in this regard. One question is the role we want to play as the host to our guests. As Amos Yong has asked: Do we want to serve immigrants on our own terms?6 Or are we ready to serve our guests on their terms? Are we ready to embrace them with their cultures and traditions, which are foreign to us? Are we committed to being shaped by their cultures and traditions?

While in Montreal, I noticed that the church we attended was composed of people born in 80 different countries. However, the mostly White church leadership did not reflect the tremendous diversity of its congregation, and therefore could not tap into the rich and varied experiences of its members to create a multicultural church. I think this is the story of most urban churches in the North. How do we develop a leadership for multicultural churches that reflects the experiences of its members? Equipping churches to accept women as lead pastors is another issue that we need to consider. Only 5 percent of the churches affiliated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, which is the country’s largest Pentecostal body, have women as lead pastors.

For Fuller, this in-between existence is an opportunity to reimagine its role within the evolving academic space of the postpandemic world. Occupying liminal space is like being in a cocoon in preparation to become a beautiful butterfly in due time. It is a period of change and recalibration in preparation to serve more people in a globalized world. It is an opportunity to use Zoom and other communication technologies to reach out to those who will not be able to come to the seminary’s physical campus in Pasadena and other cities in the US. We are anticipating the future that God is calling us to, and our faculty will rise to the occasion that the future needs. Liminality is a space of uncertainty and vulnerability, but also a space laden with seeds of hope that equip us to embrace the future with its promises and challenges. Let us nourish those seeds of hope for a few more months until we transition into a postpandemic world.

Written By

Jose Abraham serves as associate professor of Islamic studies. Prior to joining Fuller’s faculty, Dr. Abraham served on the faculty at Concordia University in Montreal for nine years. He received his PhD from McGill University in Montreal, and has taught at the master’s and doctoral levels in both India and North America. He is the author of Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India: Socio-Political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi. He is an ordained pastor of the Indian Pentecostal Church and a contributing member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.

At the beginning of 2020, we never imagined what was in store for us as a family. We never thought that the entire family would have to be quarantined for 50 days due to COVID-19 infections. We also did not know that the pandemic would disrupt the education of our children and change the mode of delivery of my lectures on Islam. Fortunately for us, 2020 was not only a year of quarantine and disruption but also a year of crossing borders and moving to a new country. We moved from Montreal to Los Angeles, and I joined Fuller as an associate professor of Islamic studies in the midst of the global pandemic.

When we are on the threshold of a crisis like COVID-19, anthropologists say that we are inhabiting spaces of liminality. We are not in a position to go back to a world of pre-COVID times. At the same time, we don’t know what the post-COVID world will be like. We are in between one state and another. In this article, I will be reflecting on my liminal journey: the in-between spaces that I have inhabited at various stages of my life and how they transformed my understanding of the world, the church, and the gospel. I hope that my reflections will inspire us to discern what we are called to do while we wait patiently to transition into a new postpandemic world.

The Unique Opportunity of Liminal Spaces

The term liminality originates from the Latin word for “threshold” (limen), which refers to being in an in-between space or on a threshold between old and new stages. The concept of liminality has its roots in the work of the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who studied ancient societies’ rites of passage, such as birth or marriage, that act as markers of growth and change on an individual’s journey from one stage of life to another, or from an old stage of growth to a new stage.1 Van Gennep understood liminality as an individual’s transitional state between these two conditions of growth and change. While existing in an in-between space, an individual has already passed one phase of life but not yet arrived at a new stage of growth and maturity. “It is like the time when a trapeze artist lets go of the bar and hangs in midair, ready to catch another support: it is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness,” wrote Paul Tournier.2 Liminality is a state of unsettling, disorientation, and ambiguity where an individual cannot go back to where they were before, though it was a familiar world, defined by boundaries and norms. At the same time, while inhabiting a liminal space, one cannot yet integrate into the new world, which is an unknown territory with unfamiliar boundaries and untrodden paths. Theologian Shelly Rambo’s words written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina capture the feeling of being in a liminal space: “Life as it once was cannot be retrieved . . . life ahead cannot be envisioned.”3

The COVID-19 crisis set us on a liminal journey. The pandemic has disrupted the socioeconomic, religious, and political landscape of our families, communities, and the world. Our normal prepandemic world and habitual routines have been suspended and are starting to fade away from our memory. We have become immobile and stuck within the four walls of our homes, looking at our computer screens, lamenting with millions of people who have lost their loved ones. For me, the important question at this juncture is, what should we do as we pass through this liminal phase in life? Should the desire to go back to our prepandemic “normal” life be what occupies our minds? Or does a crisis like COVID-19 provide us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves to embrace a postpandemic world with its challenges and opportunities?

We know that liminality is full of vulnerability, but it is also laden with potential for growth and development. Liminal space can be a transformative, renewing space, changing us and giving us new life. This particular in-between time is a space where the Spirit of God is active and ready to equip us for God’s mission in a postpandemic world. It is a place of hope, trust, and reimagination rather than despair, denial, and dissolution. God is inviting us to imagine it as an opportunity to liberate ourselves from the feeling of being stuck in the present and to embrace what we are called to become in the future.

A Journey of Growth Through In-Between Experiences

Anthropologists consider education as a rite of passage and a student’s time at school as a liminal phase, passing through doubt, anxiety, fragility, and vulnerability. Viewed in this way, education should be much more than just teaching information. Rather, it should help students to understand themselves and the society in which they live and can thrive. Education should prepare students to live in an interwoven world and empower them to face challenges and opportunities in the next stage of their life, after finishing school.

I grew up in Kerala, a state on the Malabar coast, in South India. Kerala represents one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world, which is believed to have begun with the arrival of Saint Thomas during the first century. Kerala Pentecostalism, which is one of the unique expressions of this worldwide movement, is the crucible that shaped my early Christian upbringing.  It began in the first part of the 20th century as a movement of people—women, the economically deprived sections of society, and the Dalits, or “untouchables”—who did not find a place of belonging among traditional Christianity in Kerala.

Kerala Pentecostals read the Bible in a way that created a new counter-public for these sections of society. The movement’s countercultural dimensions were evident in its theological development and identity formation. Consequently, Kerala Pentecostals rejected all kinds of worldly pleasures, including adorning the body with jewelry and colorful dresses, and they never celebrated Easter, Christmas, or other Christian or cultural festivals. However, as the movement was institutionalized in the last few decades, its liberative edge became blunt, making the movement like any other denomination within the landscape of Kerala Christianity. Though its distinct doctrines continued to serve as an external skeleton of its identity, they overlooked larger issues of justice and thus failed to envision women and Dalits—who constitute the majority of church membership—as people created in God’s own image, with equal rights and dignity.

Once I began my theological education, navigating that liminal phase outside of the tradition in which I grew up helped me to read the Bible in a fresh light. I was able to realize the doctrinal rigidity and moral conservatism of my church, which paved the way for me to critically challenge the tunnel vision of my ecclesial community.

The opportunity to work at the United Theological College (UTC), Bangalore, the premier ecumenical theological college in India, was another liminal phase of my life. People from the Eastern Orthodox tradition and various Protestant backgrounds were represented in both the student and faculty bodies. People from various linguistic, regional, and cultural backgrounds added to UTC’s creedal diversity, which challenged my preconceived notion of an authentic church. Growing up, I was taught that all those who are outside the boundaries of my church, both Christians and non-Christians, are destined for damnation. Everything was defined in black and white terms and, therefore, mission was understood in the limited sense of preaching the gospel to all outside my church. From that perspective, UTC was my mission field, where I had a responsibility to preach the gospel to everyone there. Life at UTC, then, became a period of confusion, soul searching, and disorientation. After first seeing myself as a missionary, I began to learn from my non-Pentecostal students and colleagues, breaking bread and fellowshipping with them until, eventually, I became a convert. Later, working at the United Theological College challenged me to reimagine God and his mission beyond the borders of my church. I realized that God’s Spirit is not confined to the doctrine and practices of a particular denomination of Christianity. Our calling is to participate in God’s liberative act and share its good news with the entire creation. UTC’s motto of “not to be served but to serve” fundamentally reshaped my theological thinking and vision of ecumenical partnerships.

The next chapter in my liminal journey was initiated by my decision to pursue graduate studies in non-Christian religions. When I completed my undergraduate degree in theology, I was well aware that neither my parents nor my local congregation were able to financially support my further studies. It was my determination to pursue higher studies that primarily motivated me to go for Islamic studies at the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad, India, which sponsored my studies. Right from the beginning of my religious studies program the famous words of Max Müller caught my eye: “He who knows one, knows none.”4 These words motivated me to step out of my tradition in order to delve deeper into Islamic studies and make sense of the faith and practices of Muslims. In doing so, my study of Islam not only taught me the traditions of various Muslim communities around the world but also helped me to understand my own faith tradition in ways that I had never comprehended. My studies deepened my commitment to the church and its mission and taught me to communicate the gospel in language that is palatable to Muslims. Opportunities to closely engage with students and teaching assistants who practice Islamic traditions, along with close friendships with Muslims, taught me a lot about the remarkable diversity of the Islamic world and to love my Muslim neighbors as myself. My studies also involved exploring “theology of religions,” a discipline dealing with Christian attitudes toward other religions, which helped me to discern the work of the Spirit throughout the scope of history and geographical spread. In this phase of my schooling, studying in between various religions, I came to the understanding that God’s mission is not limited to any creed, community, or nation; rather, it encompasses the entire creation and we are called to participate in it.

Another rather long phase of my liminal journey began when my family moved to Montreal in 2002 so I could pursue my doctoral studies at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies. Kerala has a long history of migration, nationally and internationally, and as a result Malayali (people of Kerala are called Malayali because they speak the Malayalam language) diaspora can be found in every nook and corner of the world today. “You will inevitably run into a Malayali, wherever you go,” continues to be an inside joke. In Kerala, opportunities for migration are considered a blessing of God and the result of one’s parents’ and others’ prayers. So I was grateful to God as well as excited about the opportunity to pursue my doctoral studies in Canada.

The liminal experience of my life in Canada gave me new insights about my upbringing in India as a man in a caste society. I became more aware of my gender prejudices and caste privileges, and moved toward becoming critical of male chauvinistic and caste-
oriented norms that guide the behavior and thinking of my friends and church members. Every Indian has a place in society based on their birth in a certain gender, caste, or family. An individual’s social capital in India, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, is integrally related to their cultural and economic capital.5 As an immigrant in Canada, my experience of emptiness, anonymity, and pennilessness—without any social capital—taught me the relationship between caste and social capital. Additionally, my gender prejudices were challenged: unlike in Kerala, in Canada women are treated as equal with men, and there is nothing that women are exempted from doing. For example, driving heavy duty vehicles is considered a man’s job in Kerala, but in Montreal I found a woman driving a public transportation bus. At the beginning, I was careful about riding those buses driven by women. In a few months’ time, however, I realized that women bus drivers have a better safety record than men. Eventually I realized that the division of labor based on gender is a social construct, rather than a norm evolved due to biological reasons.

Preparing Now to Address the Pressing Matters of the Future

Now it is not just myself but my institution, Fuller Seminary, that is in a transition period and inhabiting spaces of liminality. While in this liminal period, we should be waiting on God to equip us to serve the church and her mission in the postpandemic world. Several issues that we have already addressed  before COVID-19 will continue to invite our attention in the future. Urban homelessness and affordable housing are the issues that churches continue to grapple with. Another matter to be addressed for our future world is how churches can be equipped to develop ecumenical relationships with other churches and interfaith engagements with people of other faiths, acknowledging that churches cannot fulfill their mission without networking and collaborating with other churches, as well as non-governmental and non-Christian organizations. In this instance, it is important to note that there is a direct correlation between ecumenism and interfaith engagements.

Migration is another issue that needs the attention of churches and Christian organizations. European countries and North America cannot sustain their economies without an uninterrupted flow of immigrants from the South. The question is, how can we prepare churches and Christian organizations to shoulder the tremendous responsibility of serving millions of migrants? Immigrants are coming from different countries with their own religions and cultures. The meaning of hospitality is an important issue to be addressed in this regard. One question is the role we want to play as the host to our guests. As Amos Yong has asked: Do we want to serve immigrants on our own terms?6 Or are we ready to serve our guests on their terms? Are we ready to embrace them with their cultures and traditions, which are foreign to us? Are we committed to being shaped by their cultures and traditions?

While in Montreal, I noticed that the church we attended was composed of people born in 80 different countries. However, the mostly White church leadership did not reflect the tremendous diversity of its congregation, and therefore could not tap into the rich and varied experiences of its members to create a multicultural church. I think this is the story of most urban churches in the North. How do we develop a leadership for multicultural churches that reflects the experiences of its members? Equipping churches to accept women as lead pastors is another issue that we need to consider. Only 5 percent of the churches affiliated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, which is the country’s largest Pentecostal body, have women as lead pastors.

For Fuller, this in-between existence is an opportunity to reimagine its role within the evolving academic space of the postpandemic world. Occupying liminal space is like being in a cocoon in preparation to become a beautiful butterfly in due time. It is a period of change and recalibration in preparation to serve more people in a globalized world. It is an opportunity to use Zoom and other communication technologies to reach out to those who will not be able to come to the seminary’s physical campus in Pasadena and other cities in the US. We are anticipating the future that God is calling us to, and our faculty will rise to the occasion that the future needs. Liminality is a space of uncertainty and vulnerability, but also a space laden with seeds of hope that equip us to embrace the future with its promises and challenges. Let us nourish those seeds of hope for a few more months until we transition into a postpandemic world.

Jose Abraham

Jose Abraham serves as associate professor of Islamic studies. Prior to joining Fuller’s faculty, Dr. Abraham served on the faculty at Concordia University in Montreal for nine years. He received his PhD from McGill University in Montreal, and has taught at the master’s and doctoral levels in both India and North America. He is the author of Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India: Socio-Political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi. He is an ordained pastor of the Indian Pentecostal Church and a contributing member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.

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