Freemasonry Isn't Dying, It's Refining

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Robert H. Johnson





Refinement - re.fine.ment - 
The process of removing impurities or unwanted elements from a substance.



I've been researching Freemasonry for about ten years now and there seems to be no shortage of information, ideas and general complaining about our membership numbers. That is, the number of Freemasons in the United States and it's decline over time. The obsession over these membership numbers has been covered ad nauseam.

Fixing things has long been the goal. I'm not sure that we need to fix anything. It seems as though Freemasonry is correcting itself in that we are reverting to the small, refined group we once were, composed of knowledgeable, carefully selected and true brothers.

When I ran "surveys galore" as expressed by a post on "Blinded by the Light" it was interesting to see the take on it [my piece] and Jon Ruark's (see video link below) research into our decline. The aforementioned blog is stating the elephant in the room is that the Grand Lodge system itself is to blame for the downfall of membership. And in part it's true, but perhaps not why you think.

I think I am going to say something here which not many people, possibly no one has said quite this way before. We aren't losing members and we aren't dying and we aren't going anywhere. Your respective Grand Lodge on the other hand may be. 

Let me explain. In 1924 the Masonic Services Association started keeping track of the number of Freemasons in the United States. This number was based on regular lodges under the respective Grand Lodge system of that state. You can look at those numbers by clicking HERE

Notice the rapid rise and the mega decline. At a point we had almost 6 million members, now we only have about 1.2 million according to 2014. I suspect we will have even less when the 2015 numbers come out. Grand lodges are consistently pushing membership drives and one-day conferrals, amendments to the way Freemasons progress through the degrees and much more. But none of it is helping. 

Bro. Jon Ruark of the Masonic Roundtable did an excellent presentation this last year about membership numbers, which I mentioned above. You can watch it HERE. In short Non Payment of Dues suspensions and deaths are the culprit of dropping membership, coupled with the fact that not many men are joining. 

According to recent Pew poll the percentage of Americans who have a belief in a supreme being is decreasing. The target audience for Masonry is dwindling. Read about it HERE.  After all this though, consider these statements:
  • At Masonry's peak, from an educational standpoint (1900) Freemasonry was small. 
  • The influx of men into the Fraternity during the 50s and 60s was an anomaly.
  • The craft built an empire based on an influx of men and treated that high number as the new normal which for whatever reason they still measure us against today!
  • Now that we are returning to normal numbers, the craft is trying to figure out ways to sustain the top heavy elements we built.
What I'm saying Brothers, is that the membership drives are to sustain what was erroneously built based on a false presumption about what Masonic membership numbers would be in the future. We are returning to the smaller group we once were, and that's okay.

When I asked for a peer review of this piece, my Brother said "I'm left asking myself, what do I do with this information?" I'm not sure you can do anything with this information other than let it give you comfort. Comfort in knowing things are just fine. We are returning to our original purpose, our original aim.

The Masonic "Utopia"? - If we look at the number of actual members who are active (about 5%), and we divided them into about 450  2000 lodges around the United States, we'd have about 30 members per lodge. Is that so bad? The question is left on how to facilitate those lodges in that kind of a system. First I'd say we'd need to do what the UK has done and establish a National Grand lodge, abolish progressive lines, get rid of all appendant bodies with the exception of the York and Scottish Rite and move business meetings to a quarterly basis. Joining the appendant bodies would only be granted after service to a lodge for a set number of years. Sounds interesting right? More Masonic education, less business...I think I know a lodge that's starting to do that right now...

In conclusion, next time someone says "Masonry is dying.", make sure you tell them, "We're not dying, we're refining."

~RHJ

Bro. Robert Johnson, PM is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Waukegan Lodge No. 78 where he is a Past Master. He also serves as the Education officer for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry and is also an avid home brewer. He is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.

34 comments:

  1. Another great article, Bro. Robert. I'm in agreement with you and Bro. Jon that getting smaller isn't a bad thing. I am curious about your calculation at the end, about dividing the number of "actual members who are active" across 450 lodges, leaving approximately 30 members per lodge. Is that assuming that approximately 1% of our 1.2 million members are active?

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    1. Bad math on my part, or rather quick math gone bad. Looking at statistics of lodge growth surveys etc. I'd always thought that Freemasonry was the same as other organizations in that we'd see a 10% of the membership is the active membership.

      However looking at the total number of members, and the number of guys who compose the mean average who show up at the meetings, we see that a lodge of say 350 has a core of about 15. Or, about 5%.

      5% of 1.2 Million is about 60,000 and divide that by 30 is about 2000 (not 450) :)

      Thanks for the catch and for reading!
      RJ

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    2. If you are calculating number of lodges by active members you are way off. Texas has over 800 registered and active lodges alone (at least active enough to maintain their charter). The actual amount of men active in each is most likely under 30 though, as that seems to be a number that is fairly high.

      Our lodge building was built during the boom, and it only houses 40 for dinner. Either not many came to dinner back then, or operating lodges now set to labor with much fewer than 30. I would expect an average number for operating lodges is around 8-10 form many, with successful lodges being in the 22-28 range, while suffering are enough to open a MM (3).

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    3. Every lodge that has a charter is "active". If you look at the core group of men in every lodge, everywhere,(usually about 5% of active membership based on mean average) would bean there are about 60K masons out of the 1.2 Million who actually are active. That leaves 30 men divided amongst 2000 lodges.

      There are 10,905 lodges in America right now. We don't need that many.

      Your numbers are pretty spot on. 8-10 in some lodges, 10-15 in others. No matter what though, it isn't very many.

      RJ

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  2. I shall very much need your opinion. With actual number being 30 or even 50 in a Lodge, can we sustain a Lodge to run with 8 to 10 meetings a year. Will educating brethren in Freemasonry help to attract them to attend the Lodges. Contributions from each Lodge in maintaining the Provincial/District and Grand Lodge takes a substantial cut in the finances of the Lodges. The structure is hardly a pyramid and Lodges are groaning under such pompous scenario. With less members (declining membership) Lodges will become insolvent.

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    1. In all likelihood, probably not. But we didn't always have big Masonic building either and getting rid of the buildings would are up the fraternity to do even more with out the constraints of all the legals. Go back to pub meetings and gatherings in halls.

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  3. If Lodges can get away from doing "Pancake Breakfasts" and other activities like that and return to the prestige that once was I believe Membership would start to gain. Today's younger generations aren't interested in those type of things - they want something to belong to - something that means something - something that is sophisticated and meaningful. Bake Sales, Monthly Pancake Breakfasts, and overall casualness aren't going to hack it.

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    1. I agree. Most lodges are poor because they have buildings and need to maintain the infrastructure of the GL system. shrink the system and they'll get rid of the need to do these wonky fundraisers.

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    2. THIS! Good piece, Brother.

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  4. I wrote something very similar about the huge numbers and their and how they affect the Masonic discourse up till today:
    http://masonicfootnotes.com/change-not-change-masonry/

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  5. Brother Johnson, well said, and thank you for saying it. Many of us have been looking to the Masonic Restoration Foundation for inspiration, leadership, and education, and it serves as a counter to the exhausting and obsessive focus on quantity. I, for one, am optimistic about where this is going. This is a great time to be a member of the fraternity.

    Sincerely,
    Adam C. Marks, Master
    Alpha Lodge, A.F. & A.M.
    Framingham, Massachusetts

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    1. Thanks for the comments! I agree whole heartedly.

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  6. I disagree. The entire premise here is mathematically over-simplified because it assumes we have quality and durability even within the dwindling scale. We do not. The 'regulars' who are helping to keep things running are being taxed beyond their cable tows and that pattern is not sustainable.

    I salute some of the intent of this post; I agree quality is able to be maintained without great quantity. But only while we have a home in which to do it.

    Regardless how true it might be that the burgeoning membership built too much infrastructure for a 'normalized' membership to maintain (and I do agree with this observation), survival nonetheless requires some amount of scale. Without strength of scale, each lodge will lose its building due to the simple and irrefutable math of revenues versus expenses. That leads to lodge closings, combining and eventually meetings in basements and extinction.

    Survival requires us to bring in more good men who become involved than you are losing. A continuously dwindling membership count proves that is not happening, If you could demonstrate where and when the decline levels out, that would refute what I just said, but you can't.

    Our lodge has for, at least the short term of the past 2 years, reversed the trend of dwindling attendance by focusing on "food, fun and family". We meet (and eat) almost every week of the year, but only half the meetings are business or degrees-- the other half are family and social. Our attendance is up, but I know it will not last unless we attract more quality members who become involved. If we don't, the current members inevitably will die, move, or get burned out trying to keep everything running and quit.

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    1. "The entire premise here is mathematically over-simplified because it assumes we have quality and durability even within the dwindling scale. We do not. The 'regulars' who are helping to keep things running are being taxed beyond their cable tows and that pattern is not sustainable."

      You disagree with the "Masonic Utopia"? Or the whole post?

      When you say a "home" are saying we need lodge buildings? I don't think we need lodge buildings at all. But I see what your saying.

      I love that you've managed to reverse the trends, however at what cost? This is not a social club. And if that is how we're keeping them around, maybe that not our audience.

      This is a philosophical society. And to that end, Masonry is an esoteric (as defined by Webster's dictionary "Understood by a select few") order. We are selective in nature: ipso facto, we are esoteric.

      If you watch Jon Ruark's presentation, you will see that there is nothing we can do to reverse the trend. Masonry as we exist today under a GL system will be dead in as soon as 10 years and as far ahead as 40. After that, we will be so small that there will very likely be no lodges left.

      I guess I just don't agree with bringing in base membership and appeasing them just to have a building that is used by a select few really doing the work. We essentially count on bringing in dues paying members who never come back. We want as many as possible just to keep a building. That's wrong, in my opinion. I'd love to continue the dialogue if you're so inclined.

      RJ

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    2. In any organization there is typically 20% of the membership doing 80% of the work.

      The problem with bringing in more good men is that there aren't enough good men to make up the losses. (Note that I don't consider 'qualified to petition' as necessarily good).

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    3. I am afraid focusing on "food, fun and family" is not Masonry... no matter how noble the aim of that focus is. While I consider the 'social part' important for bringing us together in more informal settings (soon my lodge will ha a BBQ party in my backyard) we should really re-think WHY we joined this fraternity...

      We do mention initiatic secrets, we do mention science (natural philosophy, as they called it then) and seven liberal arts - and all these words sound hollow and meaningless as we quickly rush through the ceremonies.

      The only thing that is true even today from all the ritual is the references to the "lost" knowledge. We definitely lost something. Keeping lodges big is not the answer.

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    4. Brother Horvath is correct.

      In response to the post by CardsFanIndy, he states that his lodge has reversed the trend of falling attendance by focussing on "Fun, Food and Family."

      Okay, but why doesn't he just convert his Masonic lodge into a big "family game and movie night" each week. Have a family movie with food and popcorn every friday night. Scrap the business meetings, and stop the ritual initiations. Just have a movie and game night. It would be very successful, and their weekly attendance would soar, as they could include women and children, nephews, nieces and neighbors.

      The only problem is that, like his "Fun, Food and Family" nights, it isn't Freemasonry.

      CardsFanIndy and his lodge brothers need to re-assess why they joined Freemasonry in the first place. Did they join because they though it would have a place for their families to gather every week, eat barbecue, play games, and have "fun"? If so, maybe they joined Freemasonry for the wrong reason.

      Maybe Freemasonry is simply not for them.

      Freemasonry is not for everyone. It is philosophical, it is educational, and it is fraternal. Some, like CardsFanIndy, are just not interested in those things. And that's okay. But, they shouldn't turn a Masonic lodge into something that it was never meant to be, just because they don't care for traditional Freemasonry.

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  7. “...get rid of all appendant bodies with the exception of the York and Scottish Rite...”

    What else is there besides the Shrine? Are you just saying abolish the Shriners?

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    1. THE ORDER OF THE EASTERN STAR, THE ORDER OF THE WHITE SHRINE OF JERUSALEM, THE ORDER OF THE AMARANTH, THE DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE, THE SOCIAL ORDER OF THE BEAUCEANT, ORDER OF RAINBOW FOR GIRLS, THE ORDER OF DEMOLAYS FOR BOYS, GROTTO, NATIONAL SOJOURNERS, TALL CEDARS OF LEBANON, ROYAL ORDER OF JESTERS, HIGH TWELVE, SCIOTS, JOBS DAUGHTERS, INTL. SHRNE CLOWNS, OPERATIVE, ORDER OF MARTINISTS, etc.

      Sorry about the caps, I copied and pasted a list. But there are at least 500 appendant orgs, all sucking the membership dry.

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    2. Right. Sooner or later, the Shrine will drop its Masonic Membership requirement. Some argue that certain jurisdictions already have (not my point here). These orgs served a purpose but as we talk about providing a relevant experience for the next generation we need to understand what has changed. When these organizations boomed, the man of the house was the identity or representative to the community. If he was spending time in the church, his wife worked in alter guild, kitchen, and ladies groups; children were acolytes. If he was active with the Masonic Lodge/Shrine/York then his wife was active in OES/WhiteShrine/Beauceant and kids in the MYO. You did not have kids joining MYO or women in the ladies orgs whos fathers and husbands weren't Masons (both by design and for the reasons I have stated).

      Today, gender roles are very different. A woman may have her own identity completely autonomous to her partner. And the membership and bodies have dwindled but are hanging on. Many of these are social orgs and do not, in the slightest, contribute to the Masonic body of philosophy. The social org of yesterday allowed a distraction while the man was at lodge. Today with genders norming toward equality, and the plethora of youth activities, the necessity of a social org is much less. And as a result, these groups need to be largely condensed.

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    3. So far, Arkansas has indeed dropped it's Masonic requirement. Says so right on their page. As for the gender rolls, you're spot on. You're spot on with the distraction element as well. I totally agree. We won't have to shut these orgs down. They will shut themselves down.

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  8. “...get rid of all appendant bodies with the exception of the York and Scottish Rite...”

    What else is there besides the Shrine? Are you just saying abolish the Shriners?

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  9. I can only speak for my lodge,but our numbers are dwindling to the point that many chairs are filled by past masters-this is not good,as we have a reputation as being the best lodge at ritual in our state.If the decline continues,we will have to join another lodge and pool our resources.We should be helping more good men to be better,not closing ranks!

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    1. Sounds similar to my Lodge. Have you pondered some of the other suggestions above. Specifically, dumping the progressive line and reducing the number of business meetings to quarterly or less. Keeping members in stations for longer or indefinite periods of time (obviously re-electing annually if thats the requirement).

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  10. I want to open by telling you that I really enjoyed this article.

    However, I disagree with the concept of a national grand lodge as I believe it would make participation in Grand Lodge activities inaccessible to a large percentage of brethren.

    I'm curious how the author reached the conclusion that a NGL would be for the best?

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    1. I think we need to look at UGLE for that answer.

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  11. Thanks for this great article. There are four points I'd like to submit for discussion.

    First, the premise that our membership is just fine (a premise with which I agree) can only be based on divesting our fraternity of much of our real estate. In the 20th Century, nearly ever lodge throughout the country built a large Masonic temple that is now in a state of disrepair and horribly inefficient when it comes to utilities. Many lodges spend the majority of their time trying to fund the operation of these buildings and no one outside of Masonry has any interest in renting them out. Only a few have been meticulously maintained over the years and are deserving of some effort to maintain. If many lodges ditched the real estate in favor of a rented space that is more affordable and well-maintained in order to focus on Masonry, the activity and membership of the lodges would be improved.

    Second, we must also consider how we are going to integrate modern Masons into these refined lodges when they live in remote locations. It is relatively easy to find lodges that are refining their activities and purpose in urban areas with large populations. It is less common in rural areas where lodges are dying because there are no new members and the same seven men have been running the lodge for the past 30 years. If someone becomes a Mason in one of these lodges and truly wants to be an active member and has Masonry in his heart, how do we keep him interested? I have no doubt that the answer resides in the wonder of modern technology and communication via the internet, but we must liberalize our acceptance of Masonic communication outside of the Sanctum Sanctorum. In my line of work, I have moved every couple of years and I love my home lodge. What if I could skype in during degree work? Would that save me from becoming a person who stopped paying his dues? We must ask this question.

    Third, so before we create a National Grand Lodge (another concept I agree with) we must understand its purpose. It cannot be a body that simply exists to consume a significant portion of the dues in order to fund massive charities or membership drives. Its focus must be on quality control. I believe that every individual lodge should tailor its activity to the enthusiasm of its members, but someone must ensure that every lodge give a satisfactory level of the "Masonic Experience." The model that is currently working and could be used as a starting point for improvement is the Scottish Rite's governing body.

    Finally, the last question that we must eventually consider in the modern world is the idea of gender equality. I enjoy being a member of an all male lodge, but I feel that at some point society isn't going to accept gender-specific organizations as acceptable. I've often wondered what I will say if my daughter ever decides she wants to become a Mason like Daddy. Raising our sons as Master Masons is viewed as a great moment in our Masonic life, but we have to turn away from our daughters and tell them to join the Eastern Star.

    Just some food for thought.

    -Brother Terence

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    1. I mean this wholeheartedly. I agree.

      http://i1.wp.com/content.animalnewyork.com/wp-content/uploads/citizen_kane_clap_shia.gif?resize=480%2C360

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  12. I agree with the streamlining the Grand lodge / home lodge idea.

    I left the KofC to become a Mason for several reasons but one of them was the constant push for recruiting and money. Many councils have their own building which are basically money pits. We were trying to recruit more than the military, having fund raisers and bingo twice a week just to keep our hall. There were two factions in my former council, one wanted to sell the hall and meet in the church hall and the other wanted to keep it.

    Some other councils had already sold their buildings and met in their church facilities which, in my opinion, made them more effective. They worked more closely with their church (KofC is Catholic based after all) and the money they raised went to charity instead of building upkeep, taxes, etc.

    I had the opportunity to visit Colchester England last year and see an example of the way Freemasonry is run over there. Not every lodge has it’s own building, in fact it seems very few do. The one I visited, St. Giles Masonic Centre, is host to almost 30 Craft Lodges and appendent groups (Royal Arch, KT, etc). http://www.stgilescentre.org.uk/masonic

    Over there they take turns meeting every quarter at a “Freemason Hall”. There are a couple per county and they are very nice. With more brothers contributing to a single hall they tend to be much more ornate and formal.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the fraternity or it’s buildings should be all about bling. But there is something about the feeling one gets walking into an ornate, formal building. It adds an aura about what takes place inside.

    I am however torn on getting rid of the Grand Lodge system though. While I see your point (heck, the majority of our dues go to support our GL) I think the GLs have their benefits also. One such benefit here in Florida is the Masonic Home which is run by our GL. I don’t know if all states have this but we do.

    Would it be feasible to also use the system in England, one Grand Lodge and each state have a Provincial Grand Lodge?

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  13. Enjoyable and thought provoking piece. The blindness of our fraternity is sometimes frightening as we are supposed to men of enlightenment. When Dwight Smith opined on the follies of the direction of Freemasonry in the 1960's and I watch my Grand Lodge continue to try the same activities over and over again I can only scratch my head.

    I was once asked in a meeting what I thought the place was that our lodge held in the community, I responded, I didn't know and I was not sure we should hold any. We are to be a society of self improvement and education but that is not what many of our membership believe they joined. If our membership don't understand our purpose what hope do we have?

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  14. A National Grand Lodge won't work. What would it be for? To standardize Masonry throughout the country? Won't work each state, county, city has different needs. Smaller Lodges meeting in the back of a tavern worked for years until Masonry went big. Today those big Lodges and even bigger Grand Lodges eat up a lot of money that newer/younger members may not have. Meet & eat is fine as long as the meet part includes something more interesting than reading the minutes of the last meeting and paying the bills for this meeting. Men joined Masonry to become better men. That is accomplished through education. Not just Masonic information but those life lessons our older members can impart to keep our younger members from the same pitfalls of life.
    The Shrine within the next few years will drop the Masonic requirement. Masonic membership numbers are not big enough to support it even if every Mason were a member. York & Scottish Rites continue the educational process - should those lessons be absorbed into the Lodge system so we have a total of 50 degrees so a member could see and discuss one each week?

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    1. I think it would work. It works in every other country. I agree with your points on the minutes and finding other things to do, however we already are assigned what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to have Masonic Instruction, which is education.

      Talk about philosophy, talk about esoterica, talk about history. Again this isn't a social club that many have turned it into. As those members pass on, I believe the craft will take a major turn to the better. Requirements would be stricter, and perhaps the west gate will be guarded a little better.

      As for the Shrine, Arkansas already dropped the requirement. It happened a year ago. York and Scottish Rites outside of the multitude of York Rite honorary "educational" supper clubs and the AASR SJ, there is NO EDU. NMJ has zero ops for education.

      I think the degrees, as you say should definitely be discussed, directed and learned the intrinsic esoteric and allegorical meaning. Great points brother, I agree with a lot of what your saying.

      RJ

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  15. It's never been about numbers really. Yes our numbers are declining and I agree that's OK. Some lodges though seem to be focusing on numbers of new members rather than quality of new members. Becoming a Freemason should not be particularly easy. I am reminded of what Thomas Paine once opined: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: tis' dearness only that gives everything its value… "

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