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Recognizing Stranger Angels: Challenging Territorial Impulses

In 2017, I was helping asylum seekers from Central America by providing childcare while mothers attended a workshop on asylum. A recently arrived nine-year-old girl was coloring with crayons when she suddenly began to tell me her story. She told me about watching her older brother beaten by the police and members of the organized crime syndicate MS-13. With wide eyes, she described the blood pouring from her brother’s nose, his eyes, his head. She told me that her mother took her hand and told her to run. She said that she felt like they ran for days; she was cold, hungry, scared. Then she whispered, “But we are going to be okay now; we are here.”

When I heard her story, my heart broke. I would have done anything in my power to help her to stay safe, to find a safe home in the United States. Not everyone, however, feels that way.

On July 1, 2014, a group of 100 protesters carrying signs and American flags succeeded in blocking three buses of primarily Central American children seeking asylum, traveling from overcrowded centers in Texas to a US Border Patrol processing facility in Murrieta, California. One of the protestors’ signs read “Stop Illegal Immigration: Return to Sender.”1 (It should be noted that asylum seekers must meet the same criteria as refugees; the only difference is that asylum is requested from US soil instead of from a refugee center or safe third country. It is not illegal to step across the border and request asylum.)

The sentiment reflected in the Murrieta protest is not a new phenomenon in the United States. On January 20, 1939, a Gallup poll showed that almost two-thirds of US respondents opposed allowing 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany into the country.2 The bipartisan Wagner-Rogers bill, proposed the same year, would have admitted 20,000 child refugees with the costs falling on private sources. The bill did not make it out of committee.

This article will examine one possible cause of this kind of behavior—the territorial impulse—as well as reflect on a faithful Christian response to this impulse, in ourselves and in others, and the impact of our response on the well-being of immigrants.

Perspectives on Territorial Impulses

In 1966, Robert Ardrey wrote the classic text The Territorial Imperative,3 in which he claimed that human beings share the same territorial impulses we observe in animals. These impulses include the actual protection of a particular piece of land and the tendency to defend any good or resource from potential use by others. While subsequent debates have clarified that territorial impulses in both animals and human beings are more complex than Ardrey’s original portrayal,4 most of us have experienced and observed the urge to protect and defend our territory. Any of us who have raised toddlers may still have the word “mine” ringing in our ears. On the other hand, many of us have also experienced human beings overcoming territorial impulses to achieve a higher purpose. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said that “we who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”5

Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowds on multiple occasions about overcoming territorial impulses. He tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18–30); he speaks about trusting God’s providence instead of seeking possessions (Matt 6:25–34); he says that whoever seeks to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35). In the famous parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, Jesus calls us to practice ongoing generosity with those in need, specifically including the stranger. In fact, he equates our welcome of the stranger or our rejection of the stranger with our response to him.

From Territorial Impulses to Grace-full Impulses

The determination of the limits and direction of our generosity is complex for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for our societies. However, without developing the capacity to overcome our territorial impulses, we cannot live the way of the cross—we cannot incarnate the sacrificial love of Jesus. What can help us to do so? In “Migration as Grace,” Robert Chao Romero states:

Migration is a source of grace both to migrants and their host country. Here, I define “grace” not in its limited sense of forgiveness, but in its broader biblical usage as God’s unmerited favor. So, to restate the previous principle in light of this definition: migration is a source of God’s unmerited favor to both immigrants and their host countries.6

Dr. Chao Romero builds on the principle that grace is given to both migrants and hosts by highlighting the examples of the blessing that comes from Abraham to all nations, as well as other biblical incidents when the stranger brings a blessing. The act of hospitality for Abraham in Genesis 18:1–6 becomes a mutual blessing as the angels disguised as travelers pronounce the miraculous pregnancy that fulfills Sarah’s deepest hopes. In Hebrews 13:2, this experience is generalized as a rationale for hospitality to strangers: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” When we share our food and home with a stranger, we may receive the blessing of a message from God. This upends the perspective at the core of territorialism: the belief that there is a stark choice between our interests and the interest of the other, our goods and the needs of the other. If the other is a source of blessing, then this dichotomy disappears.

The blessing that the other brings may include more than a divine message. In Isaiah 58:4–7, the injunctions to share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, and clothe the naked are placed in the context of “not turning away from your own flesh and blood.” We are not mandated to share with the other in order to be charitable, but because we are connected. There is no evidence in this text that it is limited to close family members but rather applicable to the larger tribe of the people of Israel. In the New Testament, that understanding of family is extended further still. In Ephesians 2, we read a vision of God’s fatherhood that embraces Jews and Gentiles alike. We are all children of the one heavenly parent, born siblings and therefore our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We have a family responsibility to any human being in need.

In Hispanic cultures, it is commonly recognized that an individual cannot be fully happy and at peace if there are problems in the family. Our Hispanic culture gives us insight into the universal truth that the well-being of the family and the well-being of the individual are intrinsically related. This truth about the intimate family also holds for the broader tribe and ultimately for the family of humanity. In Isaiah 58:8, the prophet promises wonderful benefits as a result of obeying the commands given in the preceding verses: “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear, then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” The territorial impulse can dissolve before the discovery that the stranger at the gates is actually a family member.7

However, in a fallen world, the family member may also be an enemy. Intimate connection may soften prejudice but it may not stop domestic violence. The territorial impulse may be dampened by the awakening to our common connection but it can just as easily revive if the stranger seems to represent a potential threat. I remember being challenged at a congregational presentation on immigration by a man who said that we should not welcome Muslim refugees because they are our enemies. My fellow speaker, Joseph Castleberry, the president of Northwest University in Seattle, responded with information about the percentage of refugees from Muslim countries who are children, as well as the number of refugees who have successfully integrated into and contributed to US society. I felt called to respond differently. I reminded the man of the command of Jesus in Luke 6 to love our enemies. In fact, Jesus connects the love of enemies with becoming a child of the merciful God who loves all his children, including the ungrateful and the wicked.

Loving enemies only makes sense if that love may have the power to turn the enemy into a friend, to return our brother or sister back to us in healthy relationship. That truth is at the core of the gospel; God in Christ came to us while we were his enemies, and through his sacrificial love turned us into his friends, enabling us to become his true children. It is only when we can identify with the potential enemy and remember the reconciling act of God in Christ for us that we believe that enemies can change. It is only when we know that Jesus identifies with the enemy enough to die for him that our gratitude and love for Jesus compel us to respond to the potential enemy with the same love, risking welcome. When we experience the grace of God, we have grace-full impulses that can overcome our territorial impulses.

Hugo Magallanes, in presenting a Wesleyan perspective on immigration, quotes Wesley’s description of his conversion experience at Aldersgate:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me.8

Magallanes goes on to state that following this experience of the love of God, Wesley’s fundamental ethic shifted. “It is evident that Wesley’s main desire was to demonstrate God’s love to all, not only to people like him, not only to those with similar ideas, but also to his enemies. Wesley’s approach is not just a sentence in his testimony; it was a lifelong desire to love others and to do so the same way that God had loved him.”9 Before his conversion, Wesley’s perspective on slavery in the US was to accept it as law and to worry about the salvation of the souls of slaves. After his conversion, he embraced the abolitionist perspective. His identification with the other had deepened.

Impact on Immigrants

Neither grace-full impulses nor territorial impulses are an immigration policy in themselves, nor do they answer all of the legitimate questions about whom to allow into our country and under what conditions. However, these impulses can affect our decisions and actions with respect to immigrants. In our role as citizens of a democracy, these impulses can also impact our participation in the process of public decision-making that affects immigrants. Following Christ entails a constant process of formation in which our impulses are placed under his lordship, being reformed and transformed in the process, so that our decisions are shaped by the living truth—the wisdom of God, the guidance of the Spirit, and the love of Christ. How will our perspectives and attitudes change if we see immigrants as our family members and potential messengers of God to us? How will our decisions differ if we believe that enemies can turn into friends, and if we are committed to work for reconciliation based in God’s reconciling work with us and Jesus’ identification with those in need?

Let us examine a particular area of immigration in order to consider the range of potential options. In 1948, the United States was a leader in the drafting and ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 13 of the declaration states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”10 Still, beliefs about and attitudes toward accepting refugees have fluctuated in the US. In May 2018, roughly half of all Americans believed that the US has a responsibility to admit refugees and 43 percent did not, including about three-quarters of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.11

The first formal national legislation dealing specifically with refugees was the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962, linked to the major overhaul of immigration law in 1965. The act allowed for around 20,000 refugees per year. Almost two decades later, this act was updated in the Refugee Act of 1980, which included a process for resettling refugees as quickly and efficiently as possible, enabling them to integrate into American society. Since the implementation of that act, except for a two-year period following the events of 9/11, we have accepted an overall average of 80,000 refugees per year and 20,000 asylum seekers.

Before COVID, the Trump administration had already severely restricted the admission of refugees and asylum seekers. For 2019, the administration set a limit of 18,000 refugees. Starting in 2019, they also limited requests for asylum to people who did not travel through another country where they could technically have applied for asylum before arriving here,12 and required asylum seekers at the southern border13 to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their cases are in process. Before these policies could be instituted, when it became public in June 2017 that the administration was separating children from their parents when they applied for asylum, public outcry resulted in a change in policy. The number of refugees and asylum seekers that we accept and the conditions under which we accept them are decided by the Executive Branch of the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security. If enough of us were to advocate for a more generous policy for admitting refugees, we could see the limits raised and the conditions loosened. The degree to which we are impacted by territorial impulses or grace-full impulses typically affects which refugee policies we support, which then affects the actual fate of those fleeing persecution as a result of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or membership in a specific group (the legal criteria for asylum or refugee status).

Conclusion

“I am a poor, wayfaring stranger, walking through this world of woe, but there’s no trial and there’s no danger in that bright world to which I go.” These words are one version of the chorus of a well-known American folk song written sometime in the 19th century. Christians know the experience of being a stranger in this world and longing for refuge. Natural empathy and supernatural mandates both move us to welcome strangers—particularly those who are fleeing terror. Decisions about immigration may often seem distant and abstract, a matter of politics and not of faith. According to a recent Lifeway Research poll, only 12 percent of American evangelicals cite the Bible as the primary influence on their thinking on immigration issues.14 In the end, however, every decision to act or not to act on immigration policy, particularly as it concerns refugees and asylum seekers, can make a critical difference in the life of a child—a child who could well be an angel, a child with whom Jesus identifies and for whom he died.

Grace-full impulses are strengthened in us when we acknowledge our connection to others and Jesus’ identification with those in need. Such impulses are also strengthened when we recognize the grace we have received from God and the call to extend that grace to others, including our enemies. However, we are limited human beings, afflicted by the Fall, subject to territorial impulses. To be conscious of both our territorial impulses and the grace-full impulses rooted in biblical truth gives us greater choice in how we will respond to the strangers in our midst.

Written By

Alexia Salvatierra is assistant professor of mission and global transformation. She is a Lutheran pastor with over 40 years of experience in congregational and community ministry in both English and Spanish, including church-based service and community development programs, congregational/community organizing, and legislative advocacy. With Peter Heltzel she authored Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World and is founder of the Faith-Rooted Organizing UnNetwork. She was executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) for 11 years.

In 2017, I was helping asylum seekers from Central America by providing childcare while mothers attended a workshop on asylum. A recently arrived nine-year-old girl was coloring with crayons when she suddenly began to tell me her story. She told me about watching her older brother beaten by the police and members of the organized crime syndicate MS-13. With wide eyes, she described the blood pouring from her brother’s nose, his eyes, his head. She told me that her mother took her hand and told her to run. She said that she felt like they ran for days; she was cold, hungry, scared. Then she whispered, “But we are going to be okay now; we are here.”

When I heard her story, my heart broke. I would have done anything in my power to help her to stay safe, to find a safe home in the United States. Not everyone, however, feels that way.

On July 1, 2014, a group of 100 protesters carrying signs and American flags succeeded in blocking three buses of primarily Central American children seeking asylum, traveling from overcrowded centers in Texas to a US Border Patrol processing facility in Murrieta, California. One of the protestors’ signs read “Stop Illegal Immigration: Return to Sender.”1 (It should be noted that asylum seekers must meet the same criteria as refugees; the only difference is that asylum is requested from US soil instead of from a refugee center or safe third country. It is not illegal to step across the border and request asylum.)

The sentiment reflected in the Murrieta protest is not a new phenomenon in the United States. On January 20, 1939, a Gallup poll showed that almost two-thirds of US respondents opposed allowing 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany into the country.2 The bipartisan Wagner-Rogers bill, proposed the same year, would have admitted 20,000 child refugees with the costs falling on private sources. The bill did not make it out of committee.

This article will examine one possible cause of this kind of behavior—the territorial impulse—as well as reflect on a faithful Christian response to this impulse, in ourselves and in others, and the impact of our response on the well-being of immigrants.

Perspectives on Territorial Impulses

In 1966, Robert Ardrey wrote the classic text The Territorial Imperative,3 in which he claimed that human beings share the same territorial impulses we observe in animals. These impulses include the actual protection of a particular piece of land and the tendency to defend any good or resource from potential use by others. While subsequent debates have clarified that territorial impulses in both animals and human beings are more complex than Ardrey’s original portrayal,4 most of us have experienced and observed the urge to protect and defend our territory. Any of us who have raised toddlers may still have the word “mine” ringing in our ears. On the other hand, many of us have also experienced human beings overcoming territorial impulses to achieve a higher purpose. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said that “we who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”5

Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowds on multiple occasions about overcoming territorial impulses. He tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18–30); he speaks about trusting God’s providence instead of seeking possessions (Matt 6:25–34); he says that whoever seeks to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35). In the famous parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, Jesus calls us to practice ongoing generosity with those in need, specifically including the stranger. In fact, he equates our welcome of the stranger or our rejection of the stranger with our response to him.

From Territorial Impulses to Grace-full Impulses

The determination of the limits and direction of our generosity is complex for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for our societies. However, without developing the capacity to overcome our territorial impulses, we cannot live the way of the cross—we cannot incarnate the sacrificial love of Jesus. What can help us to do so? In “Migration as Grace,” Robert Chao Romero states:

Migration is a source of grace both to migrants and their host country. Here, I define “grace” not in its limited sense of forgiveness, but in its broader biblical usage as God’s unmerited favor. So, to restate the previous principle in light of this definition: migration is a source of God’s unmerited favor to both immigrants and their host countries.6

Dr. Chao Romero builds on the principle that grace is given to both migrants and hosts by highlighting the examples of the blessing that comes from Abraham to all nations, as well as other biblical incidents when the stranger brings a blessing. The act of hospitality for Abraham in Genesis 18:1–6 becomes a mutual blessing as the angels disguised as travelers pronounce the miraculous pregnancy that fulfills Sarah’s deepest hopes. In Hebrews 13:2, this experience is generalized as a rationale for hospitality to strangers: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” When we share our food and home with a stranger, we may receive the blessing of a message from God. This upends the perspective at the core of territorialism: the belief that there is a stark choice between our interests and the interest of the other, our goods and the needs of the other. If the other is a source of blessing, then this dichotomy disappears.

The blessing that the other brings may include more than a divine message. In Isaiah 58:4–7, the injunctions to share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, and clothe the naked are placed in the context of “not turning away from your own flesh and blood.” We are not mandated to share with the other in order to be charitable, but because we are connected. There is no evidence in this text that it is limited to close family members but rather applicable to the larger tribe of the people of Israel. In the New Testament, that understanding of family is extended further still. In Ephesians 2, we read a vision of God’s fatherhood that embraces Jews and Gentiles alike. We are all children of the one heavenly parent, born siblings and therefore our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We have a family responsibility to any human being in need.

In Hispanic cultures, it is commonly recognized that an individual cannot be fully happy and at peace if there are problems in the family. Our Hispanic culture gives us insight into the universal truth that the well-being of the family and the well-being of the individual are intrinsically related. This truth about the intimate family also holds for the broader tribe and ultimately for the family of humanity. In Isaiah 58:8, the prophet promises wonderful benefits as a result of obeying the commands given in the preceding verses: “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear, then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” The territorial impulse can dissolve before the discovery that the stranger at the gates is actually a family member.7

However, in a fallen world, the family member may also be an enemy. Intimate connection may soften prejudice but it may not stop domestic violence. The territorial impulse may be dampened by the awakening to our common connection but it can just as easily revive if the stranger seems to represent a potential threat. I remember being challenged at a congregational presentation on immigration by a man who said that we should not welcome Muslim refugees because they are our enemies. My fellow speaker, Joseph Castleberry, the president of Northwest University in Seattle, responded with information about the percentage of refugees from Muslim countries who are children, as well as the number of refugees who have successfully integrated into and contributed to US society. I felt called to respond differently. I reminded the man of the command of Jesus in Luke 6 to love our enemies. In fact, Jesus connects the love of enemies with becoming a child of the merciful God who loves all his children, including the ungrateful and the wicked.

Loving enemies only makes sense if that love may have the power to turn the enemy into a friend, to return our brother or sister back to us in healthy relationship. That truth is at the core of the gospel; God in Christ came to us while we were his enemies, and through his sacrificial love turned us into his friends, enabling us to become his true children. It is only when we can identify with the potential enemy and remember the reconciling act of God in Christ for us that we believe that enemies can change. It is only when we know that Jesus identifies with the enemy enough to die for him that our gratitude and love for Jesus compel us to respond to the potential enemy with the same love, risking welcome. When we experience the grace of God, we have grace-full impulses that can overcome our territorial impulses.

Hugo Magallanes, in presenting a Wesleyan perspective on immigration, quotes Wesley’s description of his conversion experience at Aldersgate:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me.8

Magallanes goes on to state that following this experience of the love of God, Wesley’s fundamental ethic shifted. “It is evident that Wesley’s main desire was to demonstrate God’s love to all, not only to people like him, not only to those with similar ideas, but also to his enemies. Wesley’s approach is not just a sentence in his testimony; it was a lifelong desire to love others and to do so the same way that God had loved him.”9 Before his conversion, Wesley’s perspective on slavery in the US was to accept it as law and to worry about the salvation of the souls of slaves. After his conversion, he embraced the abolitionist perspective. His identification with the other had deepened.

Impact on Immigrants

Neither grace-full impulses nor territorial impulses are an immigration policy in themselves, nor do they answer all of the legitimate questions about whom to allow into our country and under what conditions. However, these impulses can affect our decisions and actions with respect to immigrants. In our role as citizens of a democracy, these impulses can also impact our participation in the process of public decision-making that affects immigrants. Following Christ entails a constant process of formation in which our impulses are placed under his lordship, being reformed and transformed in the process, so that our decisions are shaped by the living truth—the wisdom of God, the guidance of the Spirit, and the love of Christ. How will our perspectives and attitudes change if we see immigrants as our family members and potential messengers of God to us? How will our decisions differ if we believe that enemies can turn into friends, and if we are committed to work for reconciliation based in God’s reconciling work with us and Jesus’ identification with those in need?

Let us examine a particular area of immigration in order to consider the range of potential options. In 1948, the United States was a leader in the drafting and ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 13 of the declaration states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”10 Still, beliefs about and attitudes toward accepting refugees have fluctuated in the US. In May 2018, roughly half of all Americans believed that the US has a responsibility to admit refugees and 43 percent did not, including about three-quarters of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.11

The first formal national legislation dealing specifically with refugees was the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962, linked to the major overhaul of immigration law in 1965. The act allowed for around 20,000 refugees per year. Almost two decades later, this act was updated in the Refugee Act of 1980, which included a process for resettling refugees as quickly and efficiently as possible, enabling them to integrate into American society. Since the implementation of that act, except for a two-year period following the events of 9/11, we have accepted an overall average of 80,000 refugees per year and 20,000 asylum seekers.

Before COVID, the Trump administration had already severely restricted the admission of refugees and asylum seekers. For 2019, the administration set a limit of 18,000 refugees. Starting in 2019, they also limited requests for asylum to people who did not travel through another country where they could technically have applied for asylum before arriving here,12 and required asylum seekers at the southern border13 to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their cases are in process. Before these policies could be instituted, when it became public in June 2017 that the administration was separating children from their parents when they applied for asylum, public outcry resulted in a change in policy. The number of refugees and asylum seekers that we accept and the conditions under which we accept them are decided by the Executive Branch of the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security. If enough of us were to advocate for a more generous policy for admitting refugees, we could see the limits raised and the conditions loosened. The degree to which we are impacted by territorial impulses or grace-full impulses typically affects which refugee policies we support, which then affects the actual fate of those fleeing persecution as a result of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or membership in a specific group (the legal criteria for asylum or refugee status).

Conclusion

“I am a poor, wayfaring stranger, walking through this world of woe, but there’s no trial and there’s no danger in that bright world to which I go.” These words are one version of the chorus of a well-known American folk song written sometime in the 19th century. Christians know the experience of being a stranger in this world and longing for refuge. Natural empathy and supernatural mandates both move us to welcome strangers—particularly those who are fleeing terror. Decisions about immigration may often seem distant and abstract, a matter of politics and not of faith. According to a recent Lifeway Research poll, only 12 percent of American evangelicals cite the Bible as the primary influence on their thinking on immigration issues.14 In the end, however, every decision to act or not to act on immigration policy, particularly as it concerns refugees and asylum seekers, can make a critical difference in the life of a child—a child who could well be an angel, a child with whom Jesus identifies and for whom he died.

Grace-full impulses are strengthened in us when we acknowledge our connection to others and Jesus’ identification with those in need. Such impulses are also strengthened when we recognize the grace we have received from God and the call to extend that grace to others, including our enemies. However, we are limited human beings, afflicted by the Fall, subject to territorial impulses. To be conscious of both our territorial impulses and the grace-full impulses rooted in biblical truth gives us greater choice in how we will respond to the strangers in our midst.

Alexia Salvatierra

Alexia Salvatierra is assistant professor of mission and global transformation. She is a Lutheran pastor with over 40 years of experience in congregational and community ministry in both English and Spanish, including church-based service and community development programs, congregational/community organizing, and legislative advocacy. With Peter Heltzel she authored Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World and is founder of the Faith-Rooted Organizing UnNetwork. She was executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) for 11 years.

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