FOUR PART SERIES--Boston Church of Christ recruitment tactics subject of controversy

The Tech (MIT)/October 17, 1989
By Seth Gordon


1. BCC recruitment tactics subject of controversy
2. Disciples; doctrine - Obey, bear fruit, be happy
3. BCC tactics raise questions about "mind control"
4. Leaving the flock - deprogrammers, aftereffects and the BCC

1. BCC recruitment tactics subject of controversy

Last summer, a number of MIT students patrolled the Infinite Corridor, offering a survey to all who passed. It asked, in part, "What would it take to get you to come to a practical Bible discussion?" It was sponsored by a new student activity, the MIT Christian Student Association, "largely consisting of MIT/ Wellesley students in the Boston Church of Christ."

The Boston Church of Christ is one of the most controversial religious groups in the Boston area. Its disciples say they are following only the Bible, devoting themselves completely to Jesus' will, and building the "Kingdom of God." Its critics say that the disciples pervert the Bible's word, using guilt and peer pressure to maintain a spiritual police state.

There are over 10,000 "Churches of Christ" scattered throughout the country; most of these are independent of the BCC, and some have even repudiated its principles. The BCC is also independent of the United Church of Christ-Congregationalist.

The BCC's disciples have been accused of not always being upfront about who they are and what they believe in. For instance, the CSA's self-description above is disingenuous. BCC disciple Bruce Lewis '90, who wrote that survey, concedes that everyone in the CSA is a disciple of the BCC, although followers of other religions are free to join.

In the past, disciples at MIT have been even less open. They have been asking me to go to Bible Talks since the spring of 1988, and gave me several flyers and brochures advertising the talks, but it was not until May 1989, when I went to my first BCC service, that they revealed the name of the church.

Robert Watts Thornburg, Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, complains that despite promises to the contrary, "they continue to recruit in this highly duplicitous manner, of 'we are not a church, we're just a group of friendly students who want to talk about Christian life and the Bible.' "

Bible Talks

In "Bible Talks," the BCC introduces non-members to its doctrine. Byron Stewart '89, the BCC's "House Church Leader" at MIT, explained that the talks "make practical the spiritual things that are in the Bible."

Peter Simon (not his real name) was a BCC disciple for two years and eight months, and works with many ex-disciples. He said that he, and other disciples, sometimes made the Bible Talks seem more informal and spontaneous than they really were.

"Somebody will know that Pete is a philosophically minded kind of guy, and he's taking a year off from school, and he's got this girlfriend, so. . . How can we use the Scriptures to make him want to study with us more?" In the Bible Talk, Simon went on, the visitor would think: " 'Wow. This is talking directly to me. I wonder if God's moving here in a powerful way. . . And it's obvious that I should continue studying with these people, because they seem to know something.' But the reality is, they set it up."

According to Simon, after he criticized the church on television, church leaders claimed that he was gay and his mother was a gay-rights activist, and that this was the reason he left. Simon denies both accusations.

Certain subjects are off-limits to the Bible Talk. For instance, the BCC holds that Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostalists, and most other Christians are not "real Christians." But Stewart would never lead a Bible Talk on this subject.

If a Catholic visitor was interested, "I would talk to the person about it himself, and if someone brought up a comment [in a Bible Talk], we would field that comment and then we'd move on, but our whole premise is not -- we're not going around trying to publicly malign other churches."

Zealous friends

Stereotypical "Bible thumpers," like the street preachers in Harvard Square, try to attract converts by making them fear eternal damnation. The BCC, however, prefers zealous friendliness to zealous fury.

Guilt goes hand-in-glove with the friendship. For instance, one Wellesley disciple told me that she prayed I would write a "slanderous" article about the BCC, feel guilty about "betraying" my friends in the church, and then join.

Thornburg said that prospective disciples are "recruited by common interests. . . I used to think this was the most diverse group I've ever run onto until I discovered. . . they just plain lie about these common interests [to make friends with prospectives]."

(As part of my research on the BCC, I attended some of their services and Bible studies. My first one-on-one Bible study was in June, with Vic Gobbell G. Gobbell said that he had written for his high school newspaper, and was interested in writing sports stories for The Tech. I suggested that he talk to the news or sports editors; he never did. On the morning of Sept. 10, I asked Gobbell why he had not; he said that he had been busy with his thesis, but might have time later in the fall term. He told me he would go to a Tech Open House that afternoon, but did not.)

After the first Bible Talk, the disciples will build friendships with the prospectives, and encourage them to spend more and more time with the BCC, both in religious and social events. Those who abandon the Bible study abandon most of their friendships in the church.

In the studies, disciples will reveal more and more of the church's doctrine; they will press the non-members to accept the doctrine, commit to more church activities, and share more of their personal lives. If they accept the doctrine, their next step is to repent all their past sins and be baptized into the BCC.

Many students have gone to a few talks, refused further study, and were ignored by the church for months or years afterward. Many others have complained of intense pressure to join the church. It appears that the more time a given non-member has spent with the BCC, the more negative his or her opinion of the church is.

The Palm Sunday Incident

"They would not let up," recalled Leah Bateman '90. "They continued with the lines of questioning, you know: Have you made a commitment? Do you want to be a Christian? Do you love God? Confess your sins. On and on and on." Bateman said the disciples made her feel "more and more uneasy. . . nervous. . . trapped," but because she didn't want to be rude to them, Bateman told them what she thought they wanted to hear.

Bateman cut off her relations with the BCC after Palm Sunday of 1989. A week before then, she told Sharon Belville '89, a disciple she studied with, that she would be going to the BCC's Palm Sunday services, and asked Belville to give her a wake-up call. Then, she changed her mind, without telling Belville.

Belville worked desk in Bateman's dorm at that time. On the morning of Palm Sunday, when Bateman would not answer Belville's calls, the disciple got Bateman's key from the desk area, came in, and woke her up. Bateman calls Belville's actions a "flagrant violation of desk ethics."

Belville later apologized. "I know that was wrong," she said. "I wanted her to be there, and she said she wanted to come. . . I just didn't know what to do at the time."

Let the seeker beware

The BCC's leaders, in interviews and sermons, agree that people who say "no" to disciples' invitations should be left alone. Yet Bruce Lower, who spent two years in the BCC as a teenager, said that his leaders privately told him, "Don't take 'no' for an answer." Church leaders, at all levels, frequently rebuke their disciples for not trying hard enough to make converts.

Simon remains a conservative Christian; he likes to read the Bible and tell others about Jesus, and says that others shouldn't be afraid to do so. But he advises caution. If necessary, he insists, you have the right to be obnoxious to get disciples to stop bothering you.

Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, head of MIT Student Assistance Services, said: "We will respond to any complaints that we receive. Few people complain about them."

Simon urges that people interested in the BCC investigate other churches at the same time, and find out what they say about each other. People exploring any religion, he said, should understand what cults are, and what groups are alleged to be cults.

Kip McKean was once the BCC's lead evangelist; now, he leads the international network of "discipling ministries," which includes the BCC. He calls anti-cult and anti-BCC literature "spiritual pornography." All disciples, he said, no matter how strong their faith, should avoid it. "The thing that's driving you there is curiosity. That is Satan. Get it out of the house!"

2. Disciples; doctrine - Obey, bear fruit, be happy

Like all disciples of the Boston Church of Christ, Ose Manheim has to go to twice-a-week church services, a weekly Bible Talk, and occasional devotionals and seminars. She must read the Bible daily. Also, she has a "discipler," who gives her one-on-one spiritual guidance and hears her confession every day.

But Manheim doesn't tell non-members about these duties when she first "shares her faith" with them; she said they would think her "weird" or "stupid" if they didn't understand other church principles first. Also, "it's a spiritual understanding. God allows us to understand."

The BCC, which recruits heavily at MIT, says it is based on the Bible only, yet some of its sharpest critics come from other conservative Christian sects. They applaud the church for exposing so many people to the Bible, and concede that the church's basic theology is valid. However, they say, some of the church's techniques are un-Biblical.

The BCC's leaders reply that other church leaders are jealous of its high growth rate, and are not committed enough to following Jesus. Since Jesus was persecuted by religious leaders of his day, they argue, if the BCC is arousing controversy, it's a sign that the BCC is on the right track.

Thou shalt obey

All BCC disciples must have disciplers. Critics say that the disciplers, and other church leaders, exercise dictatorial control over their disciples' lives.

Manheim denies that church leaders even give orders; rather, they're suggestions or guidelines. She says she follows those suggestions because she trusts that the leaders have her best interests in mind. "The outcome will be good if the [follower] is faithful ... [The suggestions are] often misinterpreted as controlling, because the person develops attitudes of bitterness."

According to church bulletins and sermons, disciples must obey their leaders, unless the leader's command violates the Bible or the disciple's conscience. (Manheim said she has sometimes refused to follow a leader's advice for this reason, but would not give any examples.) The relationship between disciplers and their disciples should mirror that between Jesus and his apostles. Furthermore, disciples should be best friends with their disciplers, according to church literature.

"Criticalness of leaders" is considered a sin. One disciple explained that there is a difference between "constructive criticism" and "criticalness;" it depends, he said, on the critic's attitude. Ron Gholston, a former BCC House Church Leader, says all critics are told they have bad attitudes.

The BCC justifies its leaders' authority with Hebrews 13:17. In the translation used by the BCC, this verse reads, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority." However, in the original Greek, the word for "authority" -- exousia -- does not appear in this verse. Gholston wrote that exousia appears 102 times in the New Testament, but never refers to any church leaders except the apostles.

By contrast, in Matthew 20:25-27, Jesus said: "You know that the ... high officials [of the Gentiles] exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave...."

Gholston wrote to the BCC's elders, critiquing the BCC's practice on Biblical grounds. He said that a few days after they received his letter, the elders fired him from his position as House Church Leader; they forbade other disciples from talking to him or reading copies of the letter.

Marty Wooten, a BCC evangelist, complained that religious critics of the church interpret passages like Matthew 20 "through the eyes of materialistic, self-indulgent Americans rather than through the eyes of disciples willing to go anywhere, do anything, and give up everything [to save souls]."

Thou shalt make converts

In one sermon, Rob Green, the BCC's campus minister at Boston University, said that if a given disciple is not making converts, it is because of unrepented sin in that disciple's life. No other excuse, he said, is acceptable.

To make converts, in the BCC's argot, is to "bear fruit." The consequences of "bearing fruit" and "fruitlessness," disciples say, are described in John 15: "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.... If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned."

One Biblical concordance lists 31 references to "fruit," and not one of those defines it as making converts. Rather, Galatians 5:22 says "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." The BCC hardly ever uses "fruit" in that sense.

Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, head of MIT Student Assistance Services, has two graduate degrees in theology; he claims the first-century Christians were not as "fruitful" as the BCC preaches. "Jesus could not have gotten 12,000 people together for a service in the Boston Garden. If he had, half of them would have been informers and Roman soldiers."

Flavil Yeakley Jr., head of the Church Growth Institute at Abilene Christian University, observed that Noah preached for a century and only converted seven relatives.

Buddy Martin, a former minister in the Church of Christ in Cape Cod, wrote, "I fear some of the greatest preachers in the Bible could not make it as a [BCC] House Church Leader."

Thou shalt commit thyself

"As a disciple," Manheim said, "you give up your life. Your life is not your own.... Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, is for God."

Ron Lovejoy '90 joined the church in his freshman year. He says that he spent so much time with church duties that he had hardly any time left for problem sets. He left the church and took a leave of absence from MIT after failing Unified Engineering. According to Lovejoy, his Bible Talk Leader argued that Lovejoy flunked because he was not committed enough to the church.

Peter Simon (not his real name), another former disciple, concedes that the church motivates some individuals to study harder. However, he says, most disciples will get lower grades, switch to easier classes, or find ways to get good grades without actually learning.

Robert Watts Thornburg, Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, said that when he expressed concern about disciples' academic problems, Baird gave him a list of the BU disciples' grades. Thornburg claims that those grades were inaccurate. "Either the students were lying to [Baird], or he was lying to me."

In sermons and bulletins, leaders urge disciples to give the BCC all the money they can afford, if not more. Some, Simon recalled, were making $30,000 a year in computer jobs, but they had the same standard of living as students making a third of that.

In August, the BCC held its "World Missions Contribution." The elders encouraged disciples to give 20 times their regular weekly donation for this contribution. A month and a half before the contribution, one BCC Zone Leader wrote: "In the very short time left some will take on temporary extra jobs (like paper routes), have garage sales, and sell diamond rings, second cars, houses, and/or other valuables, and perhaps sentimental items. Some will skip meals, delay significant purchases, or dip into savings."

Disciples gave $2,520,554 for the World Missions Contribution. On the following Sunday, with 10,000 disciples present from all over the world, Baird preached that they should give even more.

There is no evidence that any BCC leaders are personally profiting from these donations.

Thou shalt be enthusiastic

Some critics say that because of all it demands of its disciples, the BCC is "works-oriented;" i.e., that it holds people are saved by their good works, and not by God's grace. Most Protestant sects believe in salvation by grace.

The church's real theology is more subtle. Disciples believe that if you commit yourself to being a disciple of Jesus, and are appropriately baptized, the Holy Spirit will give you the desire to perform the church's duties.

Hence, in the BCC's view, disciples who do not want to go to church, make converts, and so on, have problems with their relationship with God. If they are chronically unmotivated, their leaders will say they must not have received the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism. Therefore, they must not have really committed themselves to being disciples of Jesus, and their baptism is not valid. Such church members are not really saved from Hell, according to BCC doctrine, and must be baptized into the BCC all over again.

Disciples say that they are happier now than before joining the church.

3. BCC tactics raise questions about "mind control"

According to the Cult Awareness Network, the Boston Church of Christ is a cult if it uses "mind control" techniques.

[Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was bankrupted and bought up by Scientology since this article was written. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

Al Baird, the BCC's lead evangelist, denies that he even knows how to control people's minds. "I have three daughters that lived at home for 17 years and I never was successful there." Citing Romans 7, he preaches that everyone's mind is either controlled by God or by Satan.

Baird and Kip McKean, his leader, claim that the first-century church suffered similar accusations. In Acts 24:5, they observed, a lawyer called the apostle Paul "a ringleader of the Nazarene sect." Sect, according to the BCC's leaders, is another word for cult.

Some psychologists also reject the concept of "mind control." According to Thomas Szasz, "A person can no more wash another's brain with ... conversation than he can make him bleed with a cutting remark."

Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, and many of his colleagues, disagree with Szasz. Based on his research of American prisoners of war who were "brainwashed" during the Korean War, Lifton drew up eight criteria for mind control which are commonly used in the anti-cult movement. Critics charge that three in particular apply to the BCC.

Mind control?

Milieu Control: This refers to control of communication, especially communication with the outside world. Psychological research shows that even outside of a cult, unanimous peer pressure will lead many people to lie about their own perceptions.

Unless it is for the purpose of evangelism, contact between BCC disciples and non-disciples is minimal. (Family members may be an exception to this rule.) BCC members are discouraged from talking to ex-disciples who have resolved not to rejoin the church. Byron Stewart '89, the leader of the MIT House Church, would not refer me to ex-disciples at MIT. Ose Manheim, a disciple who used to work at MIT, fears that some ex-disciples could manipulate new converts into "thinking critically."

Mystical Manipulation: Lifton also calls this "planned spontaneity." For instance, according to ex-disciple Peter Simon (not his real name), BCC leaders tailor Bible talks to suit prospective disciples. Some prospectives would then take this as a sign that God was working in their lives through the Bible Talks.

Simon described the following scenario for a BCC dating relationship. A man and a woman in the church will be matched by church leaders. "You get the female discipleship partner to say, 'Hey, that brother really likes you.' " The male discipler will allegedly do the same. After a date, the man's discipler will tell the woman's, "My younger disciple says that your younger disciple needs to wear these kind of high heels..." The female discipler will then advise the woman on how to act. "With that kind of control going on," Simon concluded, "it's no wonder there are no divorces in the church."

Asked about "Christian dating" in the BCC, Manheim described no such process. One church bulletin article, "Dating to Glorify God," does say, "The right way to advance your relationship is advice ... [especially] from your house church leader and discipler."

Confession: BCC disciplers do not only give their disciples commands, but hear them confess their sins. Furthermore, this confession is mandatory; disciples should have no secrets from their disciplers. They also write prayer requests, distributed to others in their House Church, asking that their brethren help them overcome specific sins.

Critics say that these confessions are used against disciples who are thinking of leaving the church. For example, if a disciple has confessed to masturbating, and later becomes critical of the church's doctrine, other members would ask, "Have you been tempted to masturbate lately?"

Personality changes

In 1985, the BCC's elders invited psychologist Flavil Yeakley, Jr., head of the Church Growth Institute at Abilene Christian University, to study the BCC. Over one fourth of the disciples in his survey misspelled their disciplers' names. "That does not sound like the kind of relationships where intensely personal self-disclosure would be appropriate," he remarked.

Disciples say that since joining the BCC their personalities have changed for the better. They are grateful that the church has made them more loving, more outgoing, and more open about their feelings.

But Yeakley holds that the BCC's effect on members' personalities is not completely positive. The pressure to conform within the church, he said, is so great that many disciples falsify their "basic personality types," like left-handed children who are forced to use their right hand.

For example, of the over 800 disciples surveyed, 35 percent felt they were extroverted five years before they took the test, while 95 percent felt they would be extroverts after five more years of discipling. In general, he said, disciples were converging toward personality type "ESFJ" (extroverted, sensing, feeling, judgmental), one of 16 possible types.

McKean argued that since the BCC is trying to make its disciples imitate Jesus, Yeakley's research proves that Jesus was type ESFJ. Yeakley disagrees; he thinks people of all types can imitate different aspects of Jesus' life.

Later, Yeakley gave the same test to members of six mainstream religions, including the mainstream Churches of Christ, and six alleged cults, including the Church of Scientology, the Hari Krishnas, and the Unification Church ("Moonies"). Similar personality changes occurred in the alleged cults, but not the mainstream sects.

Simon claimed that there is a "group dynamic" in the church which is partly independent of the church leaders. For example, he said, imagine that you are a BCC disciple. You might decide, without being prompted, that you are eating too much. Overeating, according to church doctrine, is a form of the sin of debauchery. So you skip a meal and pray instead. In doing so, you'll be held up as an example in church, inducing others to do the same.

Simon lost 20 pounds when he was in the church. A former prospective, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that in some church meetings, girls would spontaneously break down and cry because they overate that week.

4. Leaving the flock - deprogrammers, aftereffects and the BCC

Disciples of the Boston Church of Christ are proud of the many people who join; almost every church bulletin lists church attendance and the number of baptisms. But how many leave the BCC?

Gene Vinzant, a former research assistant at Abilene Christian University, helped Flavil Yeakley Jr., head of the ACU's Church Growth Institute, with his research on the BCC. According to Vinzant and Yeakley, around 1985, the church boasted that its attrition rate was only five percent. Vinzant compared the church's baptism statistics with its Wednesday night church attendance to deduce that their attrition rate was really 35 percent. (He used Wednesday attendance to measure active membership because many visitors and prospectives go to the Sunday services.)

Since the church "upped the commitment" three years ago, Yeakley notes, the BCC's attrition rose above the attrition rate of mainstream Churches of Christ. (The mainstream or "mainline" Churches of Christ are not affiliated with the BCC; about 50 "discipling ministries" are.) According to a 1987 article by Al Baird, the BCC's lead evangelist, the mainstream attrition rate is 50 percent.

The BCC's membership apparently peaked six months ago. Since then, according to its own statistics, it has baptized 750 disciples and lost 1142. Overall, in the 10 years that it has used the "discipleship" philosophy, it has baptized about 7,200 people and lost about 3,800 -- 53 percent attrition.

Deprogrammers, exit counselors

How did these people leave the church? The best-known route is through "deprogrammers," who kidnap BCC members, lock them up for days or weeks, and argue them into repudiating the church.

A pioneer deprogrammer, Ted Patrick, explains: "Thinking to a cult member is just like being stabbed in the heart with a dagger... [To deprogram them,] you force them to think. The only thing I do is shoot them challenging questions. I hit them with things that they haven't been programmed to respond to."

The technique raises controversial questions about the limits of religious freedom. It doesn't always work. Even when it does, it traumatizes the person being deprogrammed. It is as expensive as a year or two at MIT.

Steven Hassan spent two and a half years in Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. He spent a year as a deprogrammer, but wanted to find a less coercive way to get people to leave cults. Several years later, he developed a new form of therapy, "exit counseling."

Leaders of the BCC claim that "exit counselor" is a euphemism for "deprogrammer." Hassan adamantly denies that he holds anyone against their will. Furthermore, he says, the BCC's leaders have had his book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, for months; if they read the book, he said, they are lying about what he does.

Hassan warned that some Christians call themselves exit counselors, but are actually trying to convert people into their own sects. To avoid such people when seeking an exit counselor, Hassan advised, "call around, . . . ask for references, interview the person."

His "interventions" typically last three days, and cost $3,000 plus expenses. Hassan said he only started charging these rates about a year ago, and has done more interventions for free or at a discount than for the full cost. He pointed out that if he was in exit counseling for the money, he could command a much higher price, and would not write a book telling others how to be exit counselors.

How does exit counseling work? "First," Hassan wrote, "I demonstrate to [the cult member] that he is in a trap -- a situation where he is psychologically disabled and can't get out. Second, I show him that he didn't originally choose to enter a trap. Third, I point out that other people in other groups are in similar traps. Fourth, I tell him that it is possible to get out of the trap." The cooperation of the cult member's family, Hassan said, is crucial.

Hassan boasted that 46 BCC disciples have gone through his interventions, and only two have remained disciples of the church.

Many people choose to leave the church without any formal counseling. Hassan said he refers those people to FOCUS, a support group for ex-cultists, which meets every month in Boston University's Marsh Chapel. In addition, several mainstream Churches of Christ have support groups for ex-BCC members.


BCC disciples firmly believe that to "fall away" from the church is to fall away from God.

Bruce Lower was a disciple for two years. He, his girlfriend Tara Santos, and several other ex-disciples now attend the Tyngsboro Church of Christ. Lower said that those who fall away are used by the BCC as examples of what happens to people who are unfaithful, "involved with sin," or not committed enough to church duties.

Ose Manheim speculated that if she left the BCC, "I would commit suicide. No. Not necessarily. I would have earlier." Manheim expects that "God would probably be on my case again, . . . it would get so painful apart from Him" that she would want to return to the church.

Peter Simon (not his real name) spent two years and eight months as a disciple. He claimed that one former BCC prospective "had three kids, one of which was not born of her husband. And she was taught that if she didn't get baptized, that child would become sick, be cursed, because of her not becoming Christian."

Lower said that just after he left the BCC, he kept thinking the Tyngsboro church was not right because they didn't do exactly what Boston did. According to Santos, some ex-disciples feel the same way: they aren't getting as much out of some lessons, and the preacher at Tyngsboro isn't as dynamic as the BCC's preachers. One of these ex-disciples, she says, feels that the BCC would have kept a tighter rein on her and kept her from falling into sin.

Simon had a harder time recovering from the BCC. For instance, he had trouble making decisions. "What should I eat, eggs or cereal? . . . If you eat eggs, [a disciple would think] it might make a difference to your spirituality." Hassan wrote that such trouble is common among people who have recently left cults.

Most psychologists misdiagnose ex-cultists, Simon warned, because they don't know about mind control. They may think an ex-cultist is schizophrenic. "Or they say it's your problem, start calling you a neurotic idiot."

Counselors disagree on ex-disciples' attitudes toward other religions. A colleague of Yeakley's estimated that three-quarters of those who left the BCC have no faith in God anymore. Hassan says most ex-disciples he has met left the church because of their faith in God. Simon observes that those who leave the BCC but remain Christians tend to be involved in missionary evangelism.

According to Yeakley, counselors in Boston who specialize in helping ex-cultists say they are seeing more defectors from the BCC than from all other alleged cults put together. The same is true, he wrote, for BCC affiliates in Toronto, New York City, Chicago, San Diego, and San Francisco.

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