Join us for the largest annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists (UUs) joining in worship. This powerful, communal worship experience took place on Sunday morning, June 26, 2011. The offering was donated to Mecklenburg Ministries. Mecklenburg Ministries promotes interfaith relationships, fosters racial and ethnic understanding, and inspires collaboration to address social issues. They envision a community that lives by the highest values and core virtues of its rich faith traditions and respects the dignity of every person.
The Reverends Scott Tayler and Kaaren Anderson preached “Living Outside the Box.” We’ve been encouraged to think outside the box but the greater challenge is to live outside it. Amber Fetner, Music Director, UU Fellowship of Athens, GA, conducted the 2011 GA Choir.
REV. PETER MORALES: Good morning. We gather this morning in gratitude. Having celebrated our history, we're renewed by the sacrifice and service of all who have gone before. Having shared wisdom and best practices with each other, we're reminded that we are not in this alone. Having debated bylaws, resolutions, and structure, we're blessed by each other's willingness to compromise for the greater whole. Having lifted our voice in song and praise, prayer and reflection, we're restored by the mystery that arises when two or more are gathered. Having committed ourselves to justice, we're filled with the assurance of better days. Gifts, so many gifts. So many gifts received and so many gifts to pass on. This we are aware of as well this morning.
I've asked Eric Mohn and Liana Wu Storch to join me today. Eric is Youth and Young Adult Services and Spirituality Consultant at the UUA, and Liana from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. They are here as a reminder to all of us that the gifts of this faith that we hold in our hands are ultimately in service to their world, their needs, their struggles. And so it is that I've asked them to lead us in our chalice lighting this morning.
ERIC MOHN: This morning's chalice-lighting words come from the contemporary poet and artist Brian Andreas. He writes, "Anyone can slay a dragon, but the waking up every morning and the loving the world all over again—that's what takes a real hero." We light the chalice is this morning in honor of the many ways that we kindle each other's love for the world all over again.
LIANA WU STORCH: Good morning! We begin with a piece by Brian Tate, composer of the popular anthem "We Are One." The text quotes Psalm 100, reminding us to lift our voices and make a joyful noise. Feel free to move your body and make a joyful noise along with us. Rachelle Rice is our amazing soloist.
SCOTT TAYLOR: Good morning, UU family! I think you can do better than that. Good morning, UU family! That's not bad, that's not bad. I am Scott Taylor, and this is my wife, Kaaren Anderson. And we thought we'd begin a little bit differently this morning, and so we're going to need your help, friends. We're going to need your help.
We've had a good, a great three days together, a great few days together, yes? And we've been doing what? We've been doing a lot of deep thinking, right, and heady discussion. We've been using our minds and our mouths an awful lot. So Kaaren and I thought we'd kind of stir things up a little bit, and instead, this morning, try to begin by using our imaginations and our bodies instead.
Instead of asking you to think with us this morning as we begin, we're going to ask you to play with us a little bit. Are you willing to do that? Good. Let us begin.
So why do we begin with a silly mime? Why begin with a silly game this morning, right? Because it's not really a game, is it. It's a reminder. Indeed, friends, I think one of the most important reminders of our faith—the reminder that being able not to see what isn't fully real yet, and put our hands together to reach for it, is what saves the world.
It is, I think why we gather together again. Again and again, year after year, Sunday after Sunday, to make what isn't fully real yet come alive. May that magic be with us today. Welcome, friends, to our celebration of life. It is so good to be together again.
[Sean Staples; Jason Shelton, arrangement]
JASON SHELTON: General assembly, are you ready for joy? I'm not sure I heard you. Are you ready for joy? If you're ready for joy, I invite to rise in body or in spirit and join us in singing "Joy Comes Back." Open yourself to the music. Open yourself to joy.
KATHLEEN CARPENTER: I don't know if I've never seen so many joyful UUs in one room!
"We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future." [quote info] Franklin Delano Roosevelt shared these words over 75 years ago, and they are more relevant today than ever.
Three months ago, about four months from where we now sit, over 120 local teenagers gathered on a Sunday afternoon to share about their religions. These religions included Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Baha'i, and Unitarian Universalism.
That gathering, organized by Mecklenburg Ministries Youth Leadership Council, was called simply Word. Their flier stated, "We believe there is a power, a desire, and a hope for something beyond cultural, religious, or racial tolerance." Some youth there shared the nasty whispers that they have heard their whole lives about their religions. Many said they had never met people of other faith traditions, and that their stereotypes were shattered. They left understanding that instead of something to be feared, their differences were to be celebrated, and these new relationships nurtured. All left saying, let's do this often.
As the Director of Religious Education for Children and Youth at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, and as the president of the board of Mecklenburg Ministries, it is my privilege this morning to ask for your support for Mecklenburg Ministries' two outstanding citywide youth programs that are the beneficiaries of the service project of this general assembly. In a moment, you'll hear from Samantha and Tyquan how these programs change not just the lives of the participants, but of the entire city. I ask you now. Join me and invest in this vision. In our increasingly diverse world, I don't believe there is any greater work we can do.
Any amount you give is very, very appreciated. However, I ask you to consider giving more than you planned to give when you walked in this morning. Think about giving more than you spent on dinner this week, or on that really nice chalice necklace you bought in the exhibit hall. You ought to give more than you think you should, because that's how generosity works.
Please make your checks out to Mecklenburg Ministries. I am incredibly grateful for your support, my fellow Unitarian Universalists.
MARIA HANLIN: Amen! And hello, Unitarian Universalists! What a great crowd. And I have to say, I love your congregational banners that have stretched around the entire convention center, and I applaud your rally on Friday where you came together to say we love our gay, lesbian, and immigrant friends here.
I am Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries. And we do, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your generosity today. And mainly, thank you for the difference you are making every day. Mecklenburg Ministries believes that faith should unite us, and never divide us. For 24 years, this interfaith organization has demonstrated how faith can be a powerful force for good, for hope, for peace.
With 95 member houses of faith, we don't just tolerate differences. We seek them. We believe that to get to a better place, we have to build bridges where they couldn't, or wouldn't, or just haven't been built before.
Let me highlight a few of our top ten successes of this year. Mecklenburg Ministries has created two award-winning documentaries. Souls of our Students, which tells the stories of students from different ethnicities, different faiths, different economic backgrounds, and different sexual orientations.
Souls of our Students is being used as the anti-bullying curriculum in every ninth grade class in the public school system here in Charlotte. And it is being used nationwide as diversity training by Wells Fargo. And it is being used in different congregations across 20 states, trying to build bridges.
Our second award-winning documentary is Souls of our Teachers, and it shares the powerful stories of the dedication of our teachers working in our high poverty schools, and lifts up the nobility of the teaching profession. Amen to that. To our teachers.
Mecklenburg Ministries has sponsored sermon exchanges across our community to improve racial and ethnic understanding. And our focus for our 2012 sermon exchange will be "Civil Discourse and the Power of Words." We think this is especially appropriate as the Democratic National Convention Is coming to town.
Thanks to Friday Friends program, more than 1,300 people of different races, faiths, and ethnicities have partnered to get to know one another as people and as friends, and not as stereotypes. We have monthly food for thought conversations, quarterly clergy lunches to deal with social issues in our city, and semi-annual interfaith habitat builds.
But finally, there is an incredible camp, In Our Own Backyard, and Youth Council. And if you want to see what it looks like to change the world, then watch this short clip and listen to these two awesome youth leaders, Tyquan and Samantha.
[END FILM PLAYBACK]
Good morning. I am Tyquan Bridges of First Baptist Church West in Charlotte. I'm also a member of the Youth Council, Mecklenburg Ministries.
I'm sure you've heard the expression "it takes a village to raise a child." Well, in our case, it takes an interfaith youth group to help educate the city of Charlotte. But we aren't just educating. We are listening, watching, and learning from everyone and everything the world has to teach us.
Our Youth Council was very busy this year. We sponsored a dialogue on the prejudices against Muslims. We initiated an event that educated the importance of pluralism in our society. We planned and participated in the annual Citywide Cardboard Campout in solidarity with the homeless, where high schoolers sleep outside on a cold November night. We spoke at Mecklenburg Ministries' annual interfaith Thanksgiving service, attended by over fifteen hundred Charlotte teens.
In our own backyards, camp was an experience. We trekked all over Charlotte on buses during mid-August. I wouldn't say the temperature was anywhere near comfortable, and that was part of the point. Aside from the intense heat and our tired feet, the things we learned instilled in all of us values that will stay with us forever. We learned compassion, to put aside our differences, and truly help people. We met people who have gone through more trials than any of us will ever face. We learned that honest dialogue is not always easy, but it is very powerful. We learned that we can and must make a difference.
That is the mission of the Youth Council, and I am so grateful for the impact it has on my life and in our city.
SAMANTHA SINGER: Good morning. My name is Samantha Singer and I'm a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. While trying to put into words how much Mecklenburg Ministries Interfaith Youth Council means to me, I kept returning to the light that appears so often in religion today. Unitarian Universalist is flood a chalice before beginning a service. Jews light candles as part of their ritual during shabbat. People across the planet light candles in remembrance and celebration, to create a sacred space and to be closer to that mystery many of us call God.
This realization of the importance of light came to me during their first worship service in the In Our Own Backyard camp. Youth of all faiths were seated outside in a circle, and Maria was speaking to us about the significance of light within religion when I realized that light links us to each other and links other religions together. Light grows our plants and shows us the way in which we must go, figuratively and literally. My experience that night in camp and now in the youth council provide me with the transformed understanding about the interconnections of humanity and my responsibility to help others understand this.
I am honored to be a part of something much bigger than myself that is making our community a place where differences are respected, social issues are addressed, and youth of all faiths are working together. Mecklenburg Ministries Youth Counsel is a light in my life and in the city, brightening our world. Thank you, Mecklenburg Ministries, and thank you, my fellow Unitarian Universalists.
[Susan Werner; Jason Shelton, arrangement]
SARAH DAN JONES: Hey y'all. Our offering today is "Help Somebody" by singer-songwriter Susan Werner and is available on her album titled "Gospel Truth." Although Susan is not a UU, her lyrics clearly articulate our second principle—justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. So when we get going, you can join in on the chorus, or stomp, or snap, or move, and have a good time, like you've been doing all morning.
MARY KATHERINE MORN: This winter, when our congregation was hosting people who are homeless for a week, we invited a number of neighboring clergy to join us to offer a blessing at the evening meal. On Thursday, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik from the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque joined us.
Imam Johari is a warm, gregarious presence, and true to form, when he arrived, he greeted everyone he encountered with a jolly hello. He's one of those special people, you know, who manages to make you feel seen when he greets you.
So when the guests and the volunteers had gathered for dinner, Imam Johari offered his blessing. But he didn't close his eyes and speak to God for us. Instead, he asked each of us to offer our own word to be heard in our own voice.
And so we spoke the blessing. Hope. Love. Compassion. Blue, blue, blue. Opportunity. Truth. Community. Warmth. Peace.
One by one, Imam Johari recognized us and invited us to pray, to offer our word for the evening. Our words flowed together into a beautiful blessing. We were blessed by each other and by the transcendent connection that he helped us create. I wish you all could have been there. In that moment, we were held together across many differences by the words we shared.
We can also be held together—I have seen it happen—by a shared silence. Held together, even all of us. With intention and attention, we can create a connection that holds us together.
Let's try it. Let us open ourselves to the connections that make us and sustain us. I invite you to be still. Close your eyes, if you wish. Receive life, breath, mindfully, gratefully. Let yourself be held by this breath, by this moment, by the source and sustainer of all that is. Let yourself, in these moments of quiet, rest in the blessed assurance of being held.
Abundant mercy. Gentle spirits. Insistent creator. May we know what it is to be held, to have plenty and then some. To be plenty and then some. And may our gratitude to give us courage to answer the gift of life with our own generosity, so that we will be abundant in our mercy, gentle of spirit, insistent creators of beauty and justice, bringing the best we have to this life we share, to this life that holds us. Amen.
[Mary E. Grigolia]
[Rev. Scott Tayler and Rev. Kaaren Anderson]
KAAREN ANDERSON: Today I'd like us to continue the conversation that the wonderful author Karen Armstrong had us begin last night. I'd like to do that with two stories. One is kind of Karen Armstrong's, it's one of her favorite stories. It's an ancient one. And the other one is one of mine, the contemporary one.
Here's the first. It's an ancient one about Abraham, who is, of course, the father of faiths for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Now as Ms. Armstrong points out, reading the Biblical account, it's difficult to discern about what Abraham actually believes. This is not a guy with a dogma or a ten-point confession of faith that he has memorized in his head. Instead, when it comes to beliefs, he's regularly kind of confused, and asks more questions than gets satisfying answers for. But what he does have is one profound religious experience.
I want you to imagine. Abraham is out in the desert, and it is a very hot day. His tribe is resting in the tents behind him, and he sits there with a big feather fan, kind of trying to keep himself cool. And out on the horizon, he sees three strangers approaching him.
Now, as Ms. Armstrong reminds us, strangers in ancient times often were more of a threat than an opportunity. But what does Abraham do? He stands up. He brushes off his robes, and he walks towards them, and he offers a greeting. Hola! Que pasa?
He doesn't really do that. I just wanted to make sure you were awake.
He does offer a greeting, though, right? And he goes up to them, and he invites them to stay for dinner with him. He sets out his best robes for all of them. He makes this elaborate meal. And they share stories, and he offers solace and comfort.
And it happens quite slyly, without oracle or fanfare, that one of those strangers is Abraham's god. And so it is that through an act of practical compassion, Abraham has ushered in the holy. It is true that by serving needs greater than his own, the Holy descends upon him.
Now, the second story is about my friends Marcy and Brian. Marcy and Brian one night went out to have dinner together at a Chinese restaurant. And they sat in one of those tables that, you have a big picture window in front of me. You know what I'm talking about here?
OK. You know what? I just have to tell you this. When I preach, you have to interact with me. OK? Do you know what I'm talking about?
All right. So they're sitting in front with this big picture window in front of them, and they order some noodles, and they are sharing them together. And as they share them, this frail kind of wiry woman comes up, grabs their plate, says, "Sorry!" and walks off with their plate of noodles.
Now, she doesn't go to the kitchen. She walks out of the restaurant with their plate of noodles. And she's standing in front on the sidewalk with the plate in the flat of her hand, and she is shoving noodles into her face.
The proprietor of the restaurant realizes what actually happened. He walks out and starts yelling at her in Chinese, and bars her way from going either way. She continues to eat the noodles.
Finally, he wants his plate back, so he grabs a hold of it, and they go back and forth with that plate of noodles. And the noodles are sliding from side to side, and then of course they drop pathetically on the sidewalk. He still wants his plate. He takes it. He pulls back. He gets it. He puts it in the air like it's the best trophy ever and walks back into the restaurant. Now she is left with soggy, contaminated noodles at her feet.
When the proprietor comes back, Marcy and Brian are offered a new, heaping plate of lo mein noodles. But because they had already eaten half of what they had, they asked to box it up. They take the box with them and they walk to the movie that they're going to.
Now, they make it about a block and a half away and they spot the lo mein thief. And there she is, kind of yelling at all the people around her. She's agitated, kind of hypercharged. And Brian says to Marcy, can we just leave this stranger alone, please?
And my friend Marcy says, no. She walks up to the woman. She hands out the noodles, and she says, um, we haven't been formally introduced yet. But a little while ago, you were interested in our noodles. Are you still hungry? The woman takes the container, bows ever so slightly to Marcy, and says, thank you.
Now, my friend Marcy told me that story as an atheist. But as she said, it was real and moving. She said something happened in that exchange. She did not use traditional theological language. Yet, like Abraham, she was clear that her act of a practical compassion had led to a holy encounter.
Two stories. Two very different ideologies. One of Abraham, the theist, the other of Marcy, the atheist. As belief systems, incompatible. As experiences, virtually the same.
And here's where we, as Unitarian Universalists, are in very familiar territory. From what I stand, this sums up the dominant pattern of our theological debates in the last 20 or 30 years. Especially as it's played out in our congregations.
For years, we've begun discussions that start two very different belief systems, usually very much akin to that in Abraham and Marcy. And while those two opposing belief systems aren't always that of the atheist versus the theist, they have, for most of our recent history, been the two that get paired off against each other. And as belief systems, they've certainly sounded to us for a long time as an either-or option. Am I right?
But as we pushed each other, and fought with each other, and belittled each other, and hung in with each other, and then listened harder and loved more lovingly to each other, we've eventually gotten around to talking about the common experience that is connecting these differing beliefs. We're, in a sense, come around to what my Midwest neighbors might describe as, "You say potato, I say potato, but both, we're really eating and loving the same vegetable." Right?
Now, I don't want to overstate this, and I do not want to pretend that all the loose ends are neatly tied up. I know that in some pockets of our movement, the stale humanist-theist debate is still unfortunately alive and well. I know that some atheists are still trying to expose their theist friends' beliefs as illogical or an inauthentic marketing ploy so we're attractive to a Christian nation. I know that we still have some theists who privately and publicly pat their atheist friends on the head and condescendingly tell them, they can't wait until the day until they grow up and become more spiritual.
But come on! On the whole, the tide has completely changed. These are minor pockets and uncommon moments of slipping back into old habits. But it's not by any measure who we are anymore. It's not, right?
I think we have really grown up and are clear that the question of belief is not, which belief is right and which belief is wrong. But does your belief lead you to the right experience, to the experience of practical compassion and practical connection?
I'm so glad you're clapping, because otherwise I'd have to walk off the stage. So.
We at First Unitarian like to provocatively kind of say to our newcomers, Unitarian Universalism doesn't really care whether you're an atheist, a theist, a pagan, a Buddhist, a Christian, or a Barnes and Noble-ite. Our question for you is whether your atheism, theism, paganism, Buddhism, or Barnes and Noble-ism leads you to connection. Leads you to listen to your deepest voice, be open to life's gifts and serve needs greater than your own.
In other words, do you beliefs help you connect to yourself and others and life? If your beliefs serve that higher purpose of connection, they're in. If they don't—and we really mean this—they're out.
Which of course was what Karen Armstrong was saying to us the other night. As she's told us, and she's told the world now for a while, all the major religious traditions, in one way or another, fundamentally talk about one thing. Compassion and connection. Or as she puts it, we are most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away. The single test of every theology, of every spiritual practice she has ever studied is, does it result in getting outside of your piggish self? And I know she doesn't put it that way.
She loves time that story about Rabbi Hillel, yes? She told it last night, if you were there. The story of a pagan asking Rabbi Hillel to tell the entire contents, kind of, the Jewish tradition that he would convert from a pagan to the Jewish tradition if Rabbi Hillel could explain all of it while standing on one foot. So Rabbi Hillel did this.
I'm standing on one foot. You can't see right now, but.
He said, do not do unto others as you would not have done unto yourself. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
And I want you to notice something here. And this is where we get to the kind of rub of the sermon today. Notice whenever Armstrong tells this story, she goes out of her way to stress that God wasn't mentioned. Nor was Mount Sinai, the law of the Holy Land, or other values inseparable from mainstream Judaism. She emphasizes that Hillel summed up the allegiance of Judaism as being devoted to that experience of compassion and connection. She often goes on and does that same analysis for other religious traditions.
Now, when she does this, what I hear her doing is not just affirming the worth of many beliefs and many traditions, but boldly proclaiming that those diverse traditions and beliefs are accountable to a higher standard. She is declaring and calling every religion to a higher authority—the higher authority of the experience of compassion and connection.
She is not talking, by the way, about common ground or celebrating diversity. She is kind of drawing a line, if you listen to her, to put it simply, between good religion and bad religion. Between religion that has the power to heal and hold the world and religion that has the power to rip it apart. That's what I hear so clearly from her.
But friends—and here's the thing. Not so clearly from us. In other words, I see our journey of discovery over the last 20 years almost mirroring that journey of discovery that Karen Armstrong has been on. But she took that discovery and declared it to be religion's core purpose and reason for being, while we still haven't gotten there quite yet.
We took this experience of connection and compassion and used it to see how theists and humanists were on the same page. Almost to heal our own internal divide, if you will. But then we somehow never went on to claim it as our common and core purpose.
And I know that's going to sound like I'm chewing us out, which I don't really mean to. All I mean to say, friends, is we've found our center. We just haven't named it as that yet.
Now, I'm going to be shocked if I don't get a little pushback about that. But if this experience of spiritual connection and compassion is the best way to define the core purpose of our faith, if this is where we are at and captures what we are about—friends, I can guarantee you, there is a huge hurting world out there in need of our help.
And again, I want to say, I'm open to the possibility that the experience at First Unitarian in Rochester may not be representative. But from where I stand, the majority of people newly in our pews are no longer asking, do I need to leave my brain outside the door? They are asking, do I need to leave my pain outside the door?
And I honestly don't even hear them emphasizing their primary hunger as helping them explore spiritual depth or build their own theology. No. What we hear them saying is, hey, you know what? There is a world out there that is ripping my life apart. And I'm wondering if this place can help me or not. Seriously, I can't deal with the materialistic, classist, consumerist, shallow, selfist, status-obsessed, indifferent, violent, economically unstable culture, a world that threatens to disconnect me from everything that I hold dear. Everything that feeds me and gives me life. I can't do it on my own. And I want to know, is this place going to help me with that or not?
You see, more than anything, this morning I would like to be a mirror for us. I want to reflect back to you, my friends, and get us to notice this great insight that we have. We keep trying to figure out our saving message, but we've already got it, don't we?
I want you to think about why you are here. Think about why you've given your hearts and your hands in your wallets to the congregations that you come from. Is it simply because someone gave you the room and the freedom to decide whether you're a theist, agnostic, pagan, Buddhist, Christian? Or is it because your congregations, through sermons and in small groups and social justice work, helped illuminate how your beliefs help connect you to your deepest self, to life's gifts and needs greater in your own?
In this world of disconnection, isn't the value of your congregation found ultimately in being the force that dedicates itself solely to fighting that disconnection? And also, being clear to the world that that's what we are here to help with? Promoting the experience of compassion and connection. Promoting that experience of compassion and connection, which is no small thing.
I saw this in action in a very powerful way, not that long ago, in my congregation. We had officially launched Connect and Breathe. Connect and Breathe is a nonprofit that we started at the church. An after abortion, non-judgmental talk line for the entire East Coast and Midwest.
We had gathered volunteers to really kick it all off and share a meal together, and then we joined with everyone in the sanctuary in a big circle and we wanted to do a ritual to start us off intentionally about the work that we were doing. Everybody got a piece of phone line, as we are a phones talk line, and they were asked to do two things. To say, why are you doing this work, and what is your hope for Connect and Breathe in the future? And then when you were done, to connect it to the person next to you.
And here we were, sharing stories with each other. Someone said, I want this talk line to stop the stigmatism of abortion and allow women and their families to have some peace with their decision. Someone else said, I want just to really listen, like, deeply listen. Be present and offer hope.
Someone else said, holding back tears, I'm here for a selfish reason. I want to make a difference in the world. So much hate in crap is thrown around at women on this topic. I want to be a part of making it right for people. And I know doing this work, being on the phones, I will make a difference.
And as we went around that circle, more and more people said ditto, and ditto, and like she said. And then I closed the ritual, and I said, I know why I'm here. When I had an abortion as a teenager I was disconnected from my deepest self and from others. And as much as we can make that not happen for other people, that's the work that we are here to do. And I am so proud and honored to be doing this work with you.
And then we held hands and we said a blessing and we went about doing the work that we had gathered together that night for.
Connection. That was so clearly our common ground. Whether called to that by a higher being or God, or by their own internal longing and broken heart, in that moment, how we got there, it didn't matter. And I know it to be true. You can celebrate connection and compassion without arguing about how you got there.
And maybe, maybe that is the most important belief of all. The one that needs to go front and center. So may it be.
AMBER FETNER: Don't get too comfortable. I'm going to invite you to rise in body or spirit and join us in singing Martha Sandefer's uplifting song "Building a New Way," which is found in our hymnal, Singing the Journey. And just so you know, there will be a little choir interlude in the middle, between the verses. Please rise in body or spirit.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Whatever we can do or dream we can do, let us begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it. May we ever be bold in our living and in our loving. Can I hear an amen?
Sunday Morning Worship is General Assembly 2011 event number 5003.
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Last updated on Monday, February 27, 2012.
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