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Chris Hoke — Welcoming Lazarus Home
Episode 531st May 2024 • Encounters With Dignity • Catholic Mobilizing Network
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On this season of the podcast, we’ve been journeying with people impacted by the criminal legal system. This episode reminds us that every one of us is touched by incarceration — sometimes, we only have to look as far as the person in the pew next to us on Sunday.

Chris Hoke, Co-Founder and Director of Underground Ministries joins us to share about their church-based model of accompaniment for people returning from prison: One Parish One Prisoner.

Chris invites each of us to consider how we are called to be resurrection people, prepared to walk with those who are raised from the tombs of incarceration.


Welcome to Encounters with Dignity, a podcast on restorative justice from Catholic Mobilizing Network. Here, we bear witness to the stories, learnings, and actionable wisdom of people putting restorative justice into practice.

I’m Caitlin Morneau, CMN’s Director of Restorative Justice, and your host.

This season we’re taking a close look at the U.S. criminal legal system through the eyes of those most impacted by it.

Together, we’ll unpack the connections between Catholic values and responses to crime that allow all those involved to understand the impact of the harm — and do what is needed to make things right.

May it be so…

Today, we’ll talk with Chris Hoke, a jail chaplain, pastor among gang members, and community organizer in Washington State. Chris shares how an unlikely friendship inspired him to found a movement of churches that welcomes men and women returning home after prison.

Chris and I talk about restorative justice as an approach that calls in community through a spirit of mutual transformation. Chris’ stories illuminate how churches, in particular, may draw closer to the tombs of America's mass incarceration system -- rolling away the barriers to reentry that keep millions of Americans shut out of our communities.

Chris is the cofounder and executive director of Underground Ministries, based in the Seattle area. Their program One Parish One Prisoner invites churches to rediscover their purpose as resurrection communities.

On this season of the podcast, we’ve been journeying with people impacted by the criminal legal system. Today’s conversation is a clear reminder of how every one of us is touched by incarceration — sometimes, we only have to look as far as the person in the pew next to us on Sunday.

Caitlin Morneau

Chris, thank you so much for joining us on Encounters with Dignity.

Chris Hoke

Awesome to be here.

Caitlin Morneau

Well we are thrilled to have you and I wonder if you could start by just telling us a little bit about yourself and in particular what drives your commitment to accompanying people experiencing incarceration.


Chris Hoke

Yeah, well what drives me is I've I've met so many guys my age who happen to be mostly Mexican-American gang members in the Skagit County jail nineteen years ago where I was a white boy growing up from Southern California over-churched evangelical world. So on the surface, really different but we really clicked. The gang members, they were just funny and their social analysis was spot on and fun.

Like when we're looking at parallels of in these kind of the chairs all in a circle and guys are wearing like red scrubs with like these terrible orange slippers but reading these floppy, falling apart new testaments and looking out where would the the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, the the teachers of the law. They were kind of my guides to me to even understand my own faith.

And then sitting one on one with gang members in these one on one cells, it was like the best spiritual, sacred place I've ever had in my life. I could just speak my own story and pray and I felt loved and seen and they felt loved and seen and we prayed together a lot and there was gang members holding hands with hands that had done all sorts of harm but with just like a lot of tears and a lot of prayer and healthy contact. I just loved it.

So when they'd be like hey can we stop because I want to make sure my celly can get a visit and you don't know him but he doesn't go to church but he'd be down for this right here. I just kind of got passed around through this social network of really spiritually hungry and emotionally alive and incredibly traumatized and abandoned young men.

So through letters I found an even deeper level of human connection. And so all to say, helping figure out, how did these guys in prison come home, is how I learned to do reentry because I wanted my buddies back. Not just have to write prison letters or go into the county jail. I wanted to be able to fly fish with them and barbecue with them and hang out and have them over and be my buddy.

So when I realized there were so many structures, when they got home, they really weren't out. And there was so many what we call now is like stones to roll away when people are leaving the tombs. I had to, like, do all the not fun social work to truly unbury my friends. That's kind of what has kept me involved.


Caitlin Morneau

So that was the foundation of creating Underground Ministries, yeah? Can you kind of paint the picture of what Underground Ministries looks like today and then we can talk in a little bit more detail about One Parish One Prisoner.


Chris Hoke

ound Ministries we founded in:

So that's where we get started with a name but I became more and more fascinated with Jesus's mission calling his ecclesia, his church, as a downwardly mobile thing in the same sentence he says on you Peter I build my ecclesia and the gates of Hades will not stop at the gates of the underworld can't keep us out. And so as ,like, a movement that invades the underworld or the underground of a community fascinates me so we started Underground Ministries and it was both but kind of like our kind of ongoing work with gang members here in Skagit County ah but also with this new idea because my my book came out then called “Wanted”.

And right when my buddy get out of prison and we traveled around the country a lot and the further we got from Washington, people were less charmed by our stories of friendship and transformation in this remote rural county in the far northwest and questions about mass incarceration, the state of the church of in America. And did we have a model, did we have a solution? No, we just kind of had like This American Life kind of stories but early on in this journey someone at Episcopalian Church gave me a little piece of paper, a printout, that said “O-P-O-P – One Parish One Prisoner.” There's roughly the same amount of churches in Washington State as there are men and women in DOC – in prisons. What if every church was in relationship with one person coming home?

And normally I wouldn't have thought of churches as very radical nor really reentry competent. But when my buddy came home I saw so many people that maybe didn't have my calling to do this full time, through me just telling stories and copying and pasting some of his letters into an email thread, people came out of the woodwork sending greeting cards, gift cards, inviting him to come over. Like they loved him. They were really rallying so I started telling him like what if every church did this I think every church has everything someone needs coming home.

So as we went on this book tour, during the Q and As, I'd always pitch it like, “Well, what can we do?” That would always come and I started to kind of be ready for it and say, “Well here's this,” the one parish one prisoner idea and I always thought it would kind of shut people up. But everywhere we went people say, “Great! Can we sign up?” Like, “Oh sorry, I don't have a program. It's just an idea.”

So it was the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle that finally heard it and said, “Let's do it.” We piloted with a few churches: Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian. Now six years later we’ve launched like 61 parishes that include Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Covenant. And we have 24 monthly learning modules guiding them.

And so now Underground Ministries is still now two layers: our local work is now fully staffed and directed by former gang members and formerly incarcerated folks who've gotten their associates and run our local work, which is now called Underground Healing because our director Alex, through his journey – he always said, “I don't want to change. I like who I am. But I've got a lot of trauma and I’ve got a lot of healing.” And so I think when people say ‘change,’ what we really mean is ‘healing.’” I like that. So we've got Underground Healings, our local work. And then One Parish One Prisoner is mobilizing parishes everywhere to do the same thing.

Caitlin Morneau

Cool, very cool. How would you describe the fruits of those relationships? Like what does healing look like or what do you envision it to look like for parishes and individuals who get to be a part of One Parish One Prisoner?

Chris Hoke

Well there’s a story I tell often and I'll share again right now, it was really early on but it really woke me up to oh this is what this can be. It’s a small ELCA Lutheran Church, this is like church number four. And their politics were like, really progressive denomination and they're like, “Yeah, interrupt mass incarceration! Sign us up. Let's do it!” So they took no convincing. Put together a team of seven people. Alex was actually there for the kickoff orientation. He was, like, been home for like two weeks from prison but I had him come and share with me and share about our story.

But within weeks of our little kind of kickoff orientation, one of the women came forward to me and said, essentially, we're aware of the criminal charges of this individual – which we don't share when we introduce a person. We generally discourage people from Googling but you know. They said, “Well, his charges… this could be tricky. I'm not sure if I'm the right person to be on this team.” And I said, “Why not?” She goes, “Well his charges include domestic violence.” I was like, “Yeah.” And it was ah it was quiet for a little bit and this person started to share, “Well, I have some experience with that.” And I think the expectation was like when you share something as vulnerable as that – which I don't think is that vulnerable, yeah, ‘cause I'm a jail chaplain; I was a little tone deaf. I'm like, “And?” – that people would be like, “Okay, don't worry,” you know, you pull back from front lines like this has overlap and I think that's our default when things make us uncomfortable, is that care means disengage.

But we went out for coffee and this person started to share that there was domestic violence in their story and in the home growing up and that there were other folks in the church that maybe had experiences with this. And I asked how often the church is talking about this, and they were like, “oh we don't really talk about these things.” I said, “Isn't it interesting that we're, like, how does it feel to talk about it?” “Like, feels kind of good. We normally don't open this stuff up.” And I said, “Isn't it interesting that we're opening it up only because there's someone who can't hide their history approaching this church for mass incarceration.” And I started to think about, is it possible that folks from prison are kind of like the keys that God would need to unlock kind of the church's closets for our own healing. And so fast forward over the next year there's a homeschooling mom my age who didn't think that she's very tough or radical and didn't know why she felt called to do this.

But after a few months she told me that this guy Wally coming home, he was very upfront about like, “Yeah I've got all sorts of… Do you think people judge me because of my mental health? I've got like, you know, bipolar and schizophrenia diagnoses.” He's just putting it out there. And she's like, “Well, I don't think so. I don't judge you because I have some experience with that.” “Really?” And she tells him about when she was in a mental asylum in her early 20s. And then realizes, “Oh, no one knows this in my church. I'm just telling you this, Wally.”

And so she started to look forward to their phone calls – after they start with letters, then phone calls – and she'd say we call each other our mental health buddies and she looked forward to the call as a kind of kinship that they share instead of just, “Well how do I help this person? This is kind of a project.”

They kind of unbound each other in the Lazarus kind of schema we use of not just rolling away the stones of like all sorts of civic barriers and financial stuff, but drawing even closer in the tender work of removing our false personalities and defense mechanisms and seeing who we really are.

And then there was another guy who came in this the same church. We were working on housing. He's like, “Well, I can talk to everyone I know at the Oxford houses through a 12 step network.” “Like, how do you know the 12 step network?” And he's like, “I don't really talk about that. I've been going to meetings for about 20 years. It's just part of my life.” “That's great!” And he got really quiet. He's like, “I've never told anybody this. I'm just so ashamed of it.” Now the thing that he was always afraid of, that like he has he is a recovering alcoholic for years now, it was an asset. For me, right away with that church, I'm like Wally wasn't even home yet and they're already unbinding one another. This church went from all the subtext of stuff that we bury in our own lives was becoming safe and mutually healing. Ever since then that's kind of become our hope and our pursuit for churches not just becoming effective hubs of welcome and reentry support. But I think this could be part of the healing of every church as well.

Caitlin Morneau

Right? Yeah, Oh thank you so much for those stories. I want to invite you to just expand on what particular kinds of needs and barriers you see people returning from prison facing and then how parishes, churches are kind of uniquely situated to respond to and hold space for and meet those needs that folks are facing.

Chris Hoke

I'll just try to go in order from release forward. There's a lot of folks that can't even release in Washington state until they have an approved release address and they can't find housing. Well why? Why can't they can't find housing? Well, maybe their mom's house or their girlfriend's house or their boyfriend's house, it is not approved for all sorts of reasons, maybe good reasons. Maybe there's, you know, a lot of drug dealing going on there and criminal behavior. But lots of times it's within one hundred yards of a neighborhood if there might have been a victim there. A lot of times most crimes happen with people we know. They're not just random bystanders on the other side of town.

To then now do research for different housing and halfway houses or Oxford houses people on the inside have no way of doing their own housing searches. I shouldn't say no way. Some people are very creative but it's…. it's weird.

And so even having someone on the outside that knows your story, that can do the footwork and look at different organizations and call up, that don't need to like, “Hey can you take my collect call,” can call different halfway houses and and kind of share some of your story and to advocate for you – so, housing.

Once there is housing, just paying rent for the first few months, because a lot of people right when they get out, everyone’s telling people get out, get a job. They get out and not only is it hard to get a job but even if they get one they have to get to their parole appointments. They have to get to mandatory evaluations for mental health and for addiction. And then for those appointments, they have to go get their driver's license.

Oh, before that they need to go get their ID. Oh, before they get that they need to go find their social security card. And their birth certificate oftentimes, because all that stuff's been lost in their arrest or the chaos of their lives. And so doing reentry becomes like a 20-hour a week job at least. But they're not doing it because they're trying to get their job to pay their rent. But then they lose their job because they're so stressed out they're relapsing.

And one of the biggest barriers we teach folks about is asking folks if they know the number one cause for reincarceration. Or getting caught back up in this system or encounter with law enforcement after prison. And people are surprised there in that it's not drugs. It's not violent infractions. It's driving with a license suspended in the third.

It's so hard to get your driver's license because of legal financial obligations. When people are incarcerated, they haven't fully paid their debt to society. It's a myth. There's all these court costs and fees that most state budgets have pawned off and said oh we believe incarceration will pay a lot for it but could we pay less? And so they're like okay well the cost of incarceration, the cost of being prosecuted is now put onto the person prosecuted.

So, as soon as you're sentenced and you're sent to prison you already have a bill for the lawyers who prosecuted you. And people don't know this. A nd it's normally already accruing interest starting the day you go off to prison. You can't pay it and until you pay that off, you can't go get your driver's license so you can drive legally to go get the job everyone tells you to get.

So this is how people stay in what we call just the underground. They're out of the deepest tomb, kind of a prison landfill, but they're still in kind of a civic netherworld. So we've kind of learned how to roll away those stones and we teach teams, going to those municipal courts getting them pulled out of collections, interest disappearing, negotiating a small payment, taking holds off licenses.

It's a lot of work.

Caitlin Morneau

Yeah, and I can really see how for, you know, someone in a parish who's retired and you know has some time on their hands and has some background in navigating these systems and can make themselves available to accompanying someone through those challenges. Do you want to say more about, kind of, the particular kinds of roles that people in parishes play and how you go about forming a team and what you might invite folks to look for within themselves in saying yes to being part of this ministry.

Chris Hoke

Well, I found exactly as you said that each isolated step that we do, anyone can do. And I realized oh a lot of folks in churches they know how to navigate American systems. They just won't do it if they don't love the person. But if you love someone…. What person in every single church hasn't gone to bat and figured out all sorts of problems for their kids. So you figure it out, if you love somebody.

And so, that's why the journey starts a year before release, of letter writing and visits, is just building relationship and building trust and telling stories back and forth. So by the time and then like after like six months they start doing the release and reentry planning. And what we offer with our twenty four monthly learning modules is just kind of a cheat sheet. It's like reentry for dummies and so these folks already have the innate skills to do this. And we just map it all out and like okay got you, they knock it out.

Folks coming out of the underground, like, that whole network of structures for legitimate civic participation, a lot of those barriers are there, I think, to make sure some people are not part of civic participation. And so even that journey for a lot of folks and churches really wakes them up. Not only can they handle it and help unbury this person.

And so how do we form them? We normally start working with a church leadership, a pastor, deacons oftentimes are the ones who really have a pulse on what's going on in the parish, can help recruit seven parishioners. Like anything, like the beginner's mind is best, Jesus didn't recruit, you know, the leaders of the temple. He recruited like teenagers and fishermen and political radicals and outsiders and oh yeah, bring your brother.

So to invite folks throughout the congregation that might be like yeah an elderly ah retired couple who have a lot of love a lot of heart and a lot of time to write letters, to give someone a ride, a lot of life experience, a lot of patience. Invite that person that's kind of like deconstructing and doesn't really come to church anymore. Like they've been waiting for something meatier and more meaningful to sink their teeth in than just Sunday worship. Invite the person who's maybe formerly incarcerated and they're neighbor of a parishioner and they don't consider themselves a Christian but our definition of parish starts to get bigger.

So build your team of seven. And in the orientation, we introduce people to a monthly team meeting, which is about an hour and a half, where they discuss the learning module they read. And then beginning with the welcoming prayer, which was developed out of contemplative outreach, you know, like Thomas Keating and centering prayer.

So the welcoming prayer is, I welcome everything that comes to me: thoughts, feelings, etc because I trust that they can be part of my healing. And there's, like, I let go of false security. I let go of the desire for control. And this is such a, I don't know, catechism of unlocking a carceral or mass incarceration culture – that we're so addicted to control.

And we're so afraid of things we can't control coming towards us. And so I love that the welcoming prayer is like practicing welcome even within. Because I've learned that what we do in here, inside ourselves, is what we do out there.

Like I see this with a lot of teams that kind of fancy themselves very welcoming. As soon as things start getting a little messy, they can right away snap into you know, stiff arm, that's not okay, either overfunctioning and trying to control that person's life. They won't think they're judgmental but they can't tolerate mess. They can't tolerate well, they relapsed on meth or they're not texting me back. They're not grateful for everything that I did. And so I think we can still snap into discipline if discipline is our internal space. So the welcoming prayer is really a touchstone or a shared spirituality we have throughout the journey of practicing unlocking those gates of Hades we have within ourselves as well.

Caitlin Morneau

Yeah, well I can't help but be thinking about how what you're describing is inviting ourselves into an inner orientation of resurrection. And I wonder if you could just elaborate on that from your perspective. What does the inner orientation of resurrection look like, feel like, manifest in our relationships?

Chris Hoke

The schema for One Parish One Prisoner is the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. It's really the longest gospel narrative other than Christ's own passion and crucifixion, resurrection. And for us it begins in friendship. Like Jesus's approaches Lazarus. He's not a disciple. And we're nowhere near temple and we're not at the synagogue. Resurrection happens away from places of worship and so maybe the first thing to remember this is an event that happens outside of religious services, which is at the tombs, which is where people are buried, which is where human beings and histories and wounds and unsightliness and smells are shut away. And if we're not going to the place of unpleasantness and exclusion and the people and the topics that we want to be dead to us, if we're not going there then I don't know why we think we're people of the resurrection.

But when Jesus is raised in Matthew's gospel, it has such a, I don't know, cosmic understanding, like, the whole earth shakes and like people from the tombs left everywhere. But the early church, it was the whole realm of the underground that has locks and keys scattered in the darkness are shattered and Jesus is like a prison break from the inside out. And we're going deeper into hell itself until hell is empty.

In the Lazarus story, it starts with friendship. Jesus weeps. And so weeping, either at the state that people are incarcerated or, if you know someone , through writing letters, you start to really have your heart broken, I think that's the resurrection power – having your heart broken through your friendship that someone's in the tombs. Because a lot of people could be like, yeah everyone everyone dies, like, why are you so mad at the tomb? Why would you be sad at the tombs? But anyone knows if it's someone you know, someone you love, then every death is a tragedy. And so this moves Jesus that, like, he reverses death and then calls a community to participate and they roll away the stone. But just before that, before rolling away the stone and then inviting them even closer to unbind Lazarus, someone in the group says, “If you roll away the stone, it's really going to stink. The body's been in there for days.”

And for us that's kind of a stand-in for every, “yeah but.” Hey, let's welcome someone home from prison. Let's be in friendship. Well what about the children? What about people that have been traumatized before and in the church? What about if we create dependency and they this person now expects us to do too much of it? There's a thousand questions we field. But I love that that's the standing question, is what about the stink? And what about the unpleasant realities that could leak out of the underworld if we remove that barrier our society put there?

And I love that Jesus doesn't say, “You know what? That's such a good point. We're going to put together, like, a stink mitigation committee and we want to reduce that and then we'll come back with a new proposal next month and see if you want to participate in resurrection, because we'll make sure that you won't have to smell anything unpleasant.”

But he also doesn't say suck it up. But he says, “Did I not tell you that if you do as I say you'll see the glory of God?” I like that. It's like you're saying you're worried about the wrong thing. We get to see the glory of God participating with people coming out of structures of death. And seeing eyes light up and hearts renew and people reconnecting with their children in our own faith and hope, coming back to life, like, this is the glory of God and we're missing it we're missing it. And I think God's doing this all the time. The church is just missing out. But I think people are hungry to see the magic and the mystery of divinity through these relationships of death being overcome one relationship at a time.

Caitlin Morneau

So I loved how you framed this calling in of community to participate because I think a lot of folks when they hear the words restorative justice, they think of the victim, or the person harmed, and the offender, or the person responsible. But there's a third party that sometimes gets left out of the conversation but is essential to that transformation, which is community. And so I love how Underground Ministries and One Parish One Prisoner really lifts up the role of community as people as you've said with both responsibilities and their/our own needs for healing alike. So, is there anything more that you'd like to add about One Parish One Prisoner as just a vessel for repairing relationships, transforming relationships?

Chris Hoke

Sadly, in most of our state criminal legal systems contact between the responsible party and the harmed party, that contact isn't even allowed. If it were not so fenced off and I think a way that is supposedly and about protecting the victims but I no longer buy that, I think it's just about punishment by removal from community. The One Parish One Prisoner teams are at least practicing repairing and restoring someone to the fabric of the community in the macro sense. Even if there's not direct repair or contact with a person who is harmed by their specific crime. But that's still kind of on an individualistic level. I think in the Bible and like two-thirds of the world that doesn't come from such an individualistic mindset, that it's really about restoring someone to community even if whatever their worst infraction was, you know, had a specific person or people that were affected. Really, it's about this person is not at health with the rest of the community. And so the rest of the community is really helping this person do their own repair work and also embracing restoring them to the community.

So, in the bigger end game of restorative justice, I think that's what we're practicing. And that people can be repaired.

Caitlin Morneau

All right, final question for folks who are listening and thinking, “You know I think I could be a part of this. I think my parish could be a part of this.” How do you invite people, parishes, teams to discern creating a welcoming ministry. And what would you recommend to someone feeling called to do so?

Chris Hoke

We pair people in Washington State because we've got a lot of staff and church recruiters and applications coming in. But so much of our journey is already a learning journey online with videos and support and everything. So do this, you can do One Parish One Prisoner if your parish team can locate your own Lazarus, someone who's locked up who's coming home to your town or county, at least, within the next two years. We call it the Lazarus inventory.

If a church can start because…. We used to do this from the front, like, raise your hand if you know someone who is incarcerated. Hands go up that have never admitted that and people turn around like, oh really? And like, people come up to us after we preach and that everything clears out and in the narthex so and says, “Well, my son's locked up and I just wanted to tell you about this.” “Does your pastor know?” “Oh no. No, I couldn't tell them that.”

So, hosting conversations and putting on social media, “Do you know anyone who's locked up? Do you have a loved one who's locked up?” In a positive way. People will come forward. It'll come out of the woodwork that you don't need our staff to bring you an applicant. Ask at your workplace. Ask at your church. Ask at your book clubs. Ask someone doing prison ministry. Do you know someone that’s coming home to this area in the next two years that would like to build friendships with new people and that can we're not here to convert them, make them go to church but we really want to be in friendship and welcome them home and figure this out together.

And then if you found that person, go on our website, download the application, send it to them so that they kind of know what it is, and if they're like, “Yeah, I want to do this.” And then we'll just talk with your team via Zoom and we'll get you guys plugged in and you can do this anywhere in America.

Caitlin Morneau

Chris, thank you so, so much for being with us. What a joy to talk with you, are so encouraged by your ministry and continue to hold you all in prayer and may God be with us all in the journey.

Chris Hoke

Thank you Caitlin. It's been awesome. It's an honor to see you and to share some of what we're doing with your audience.

Caitlin Morneau

You bet. Thanks so much, Chris.

Here at Catholic Mobilizing Network, we work on ending the death penalty. And we cannot ignore the system of mass incarceration that it is embedded within. Incarceration in this country is so widespread that it touches all of us - whether we realize it or not.

I find it so important to remember that approximately 96% of people in prison will be released in their lifetime. These are our neighbors, our fellow parishioners, and we all have a role to play in this story of resurrection and mutual transformation.

If you’d like to learn more about the One Parish One Prisoner program, I encourage you to visit their website at

In the closing words of the Welcoming Prayer, “may we be open to the love and presence of God, and healing action and presence within.”

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Encounters With Dignity. Be sure to subscribe to our show from your favorite podcast platform, or by visiting

To stay connected with Catholic Mobilizing Network, and our mission to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at

Join us next month when we’ll hear from Mark Osler, who serves as a Deputy County Attorney in Minnesota. He’ll talk with us about the prosecutor’s role in creating avenues for restorative justice.

Let us close in prayer…

Good and gracious God, thank you for this opportunity to come together, to be in relationship across time and distance. May this conversation remind us that every person has dignity because we are made in Your image and likeness - cherished and beloved. May we participate with one another in the redemption that you made possible by your suffering, death, and resurrection. And may we bear witness to your healing, restorative, transformative work in the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, your son. Amen.



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