What to Do About Short Term Missions

by Sarita Hartz on May 25, 2015

Yesterday I discussed the Mess of Short Term Missions. Today, I’m going to offer ten ways to do a short term mission trip well. These ideas are for anyone leading or going on a short term mission trip — or for anyone who’s trying to decide whether or not to go on a particular trip.



The most effective form of short-term ministry is to pour into the local missionaries and their national staff rather than beneficiaries. (Yep, that might mean good-bye VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair.)

You will not be able to impact those beneficiaries on a day to day, but you can impact the missionary who will get to. That means you probably don’t need a team of 15 people, but rather a smaller, more intentional team.

It doesn’t look like we were ever really intended to do short-term missions the way that we do them.

The only “missions” in the gospel was relational and long term. Churches like Phillippi would often send 1-2 missionaries from their church to support and encourage the work of long-term missionaries like Paul, but the intention was always to serve the long term missionary so he could continue the work of serving people.

Philippians 2:25, 29–30 says:
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need … So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

Paul, calls him “my brother and fellow-worker and fellow-soldier.” Those three words speak volumes. He isn’t there to fulfill a self-serving need of holding babies or to gain experience, he is there in the trenches with Paul to encourage him and co-labor with him.

“Epaphroditus is a great model for short-term work. Epaphroditus served the church and the cause of missions by being a messenger of the church’s love for Paul, and by being a minister to his emotional and physical needs. His “short-term” efforts advanced the cause of missions by supporting the most effective means of missions — long-term missionaries.” (I stole that from this really smart guy.)

Most missionaries are having a tough time feeling like they are always failing because they live in a constant state where people are pulling on them with tons of needs.

They probably already feel pretty horrible and they don’t need you to make them feel worse or like they aren’t measuring up. They have lots of good ideas that rarely ever turn out as planned. They spend countless hours in uncomfortable situations loving on prostitutes in brothels or waiting in long lines at the hospital to get their locals some medical care. They might be recovering from physical illness or be burned out because of the toll long term stress and trauma can take on the body. They have self-doubt and self-loathing. They miss creature comforts and their families. Their marriage might be going through a tough time because of all the stress and fatigue.

You don’t live there under those extreme conditions, so you might not get it, but be a SAFE PLACE for them to air things out without judgment or reproach.

Offer grace and encouragement that they are doing a good job and help them to see when they might want to take a break. Maybe bring them some funny TV shows, or Breaking Bad, or some good books, or downloaded sermons, or some chocolate. They could probably use a chocolate bar.

Develop a connection that will remain long after you leave. You might be the lifeline of support they need, and you might learn a lot from them in the process.



Don’t think about all the cool stories or photos you want to bring back so you can show people what you’ve done. These missionaries are the people who have a heart for this nation and have sacrificed everything to be there every day loving people and doing the hard stuff.

When you roll in and hand out a bunch of soccer balls and candy to kids, it undermines the bridges of trust built through partnering and instead sends the message of easy “Aid” and spreads dependency. It makes it much harder on them when you leave and people wonder why this friend who has been staying with them over all these years never “gives them stuff.” If you have gifts, only bring what they’ve asked and let them hand them out at a time they deem appropriate.

Here are some ideas of things that might be helpful, but you should specifically ask your organization or missionary what their needs are. Maybe they need, I don’t know, CASH, more than they need you to fly over. It’s not shiny or seductive, but I promise it will be a thousand times more helpful than building a house they could have gotten locals to build better:

  • Be a friend (offer counseling, support, encouragement to local staff; help them recharge)
  • Pray and prophecy over them—bring fellowship to them because they miss that
  • Offer counseling, Theophostic prayer, or Sozo (if qualified)
  • Offer them a retreat, a date night, or a babysitter. Do their nails, or bring stuff over for them from America like food supplies and vitamins
  • Offer to pray over their national staff’s homes or make them dinner
  • Be willing to help around the office with admin/tech issues
  • Host a teaching conference (women’s conference) or something of lasting value (and pay for it). Give away the training you’ve received to people who don’t have access to those resources and materials
  • Train staff in Vocational Education — something they can reuse or train their beneficiaries in
  • Raise money for them.
  • Ask how can you help them long term. Your greatest asset to them will be what you do with your time when you come back. Will you serve long term? Volunteer? Spread the word?
  • Listen to their guidance and don’t suggest programs they haven’t suggested— ask what their needs are and where you can best serve.
  • Develop long term relationships with the organization
  • Don’t judge them — they know they have holes. Rather, encourage them and see where you can volunteer to fill holes.

Which leads me to….



Let God purify the motives of your heart. Is it for approval?

For man’s celebratory pat on the back?  Is it because if you show you are some kind of savior, you can prove your worth to the world and yourself?

Is it so you can have some cute African kids on your Facebook feed and show how unique you are?

Ask God to reveal to you why He wants you to go.

Remember that good intentions are not enough.


4.  ACTUALLY HAVE A SPECIFIC, NEEDED SKILL TO OFFER (nunchuck skills are not real skills)

The worst thing for the missionaries and for you, is for you to end up feeling useless. Before you plan a trip, really have an open conversation with the missionary/organization about what their actual needs are. Not ones they made up to keep you occupied, but the holes they truly need filled. Really press in and ask them to be truly honest, even if that means you don’t go. If you can’t find people to fill those specific needs, then perhaps rethink the timing or intention of your trip.

Here are some helpful skills on the mission field:

  • Nursing
  • Counseling (Marriage & Family or Trauma)
  • Parenting skills
  • Marriage reconciliation/conflict resolution
  • Computer/website genius
  • Book keeping/Data entry
  • Vocational (seamstress, T-shirt printing, jewelry designer, carpentry, crocheting, baking)
  • Grant writing
  • Graphic Design
  • Photography/Videography

Ask yourself: what will be your sustainable impact?



You’re not going to save the world in the 4.5 days you have on the ground, nor should you try.

You’re probably not going to come up with some genius solution to an incredibly complex problem like poverty.

You don’t have the same information or context as the missionaries on the ground, so don’t assume you know how to do it better than they do.

What if you recognize and accept that if you are going, it might be more about what you will receive and how you will be changed by it, than it will actually impact the people you are going to serve?

Don’t go with answers, but go searching for answers. Recognize there might not be any simple ones, and there might not be a happy ending.

This is messy, challenging work, but if you look close enough you just might find some grace and hope trickling through.

Don’t go in with HUGE expectations. Be humble and see how you can partner with what God’s spirit is already doing in that place, through the people already there.

Listen more and talk less, unless they’re good questions. Not, “When are we going to eat next?” or “Is it possible for us to get hot water?” But thoughtful, critical questions.



Just because you are white or a Westerner doesn’t mean you are superior or you have all the answers. In fact you probably don’t. And the ones you think of will probably have been tried a hundred times already. Wear the long skirt. Eat the strange food. Learn a few words of their local language. Build relationships by not offending people. Follow the rules of your hosts even if you don’t understand them.

Don’t look down on them as “less educated” or not as knowledgeable if they don’t carry your same degree or accolades.

Remember the missionaries and locals are experts on their own nation. Please respect the national staff and follow their recommendations.

And please, for goodness sake, don’t run off with people of the opposite sex. I think that’s universally frowned upon in most cultures.



It’s going to be tough to travel to the developing world. Most things will not go according to schedule or plan, and you huffing and puffing around like Darth Vader, isn’t going to change anything.

Most other cultures move a lot slower than America, and they are not on your time-table. The organization you came to serve has probably been running around for the previous weeks just trying to get your accommodation and transportation sorted in a land where time might be a fluid thing, so give them a break.

Your agenda may not happen.

Get over it and see what God’s agenda is. You might not hold lots of babies, or save a girl out of the Red light district. You might not have running water or electricity or regular meals. You might have to stand in church for four hours praying for people and sweating and wishing you’d brought a bottle of water. These things happen. Anything can be endured for a short time, so buck up, and try not to complain. Or worse, try not to take over.

You’re not in charge this time, and whether you’re a pastor or the Pope himself, you should follow the lead of your point person on the ground.

I’ve had friends who were completely railroaded by their teams and spent the entire time trying to please them and make them happy instead of focusing on their very important work. Don’t be that person!

If you are, they might have to taze you, and that would be seriously annoying. So take a breather if you need to. Get some personal time, go for a walk, or do some yoga, but try not to make extra demands on the ministry because you are outside of your comfort zone.



Ok, so this is one of my pet peeves. The issue of imbalances of power due to wealth are serious. In very little time you can create unhealthy patterns of dependency or even resentment. You can do more harm to the local ministry than good. This ranges from the White Savior complex that places everyone else as a victim to be rescued, to the belittling of leaders in developing nations, to the overindulgence of resources without accountability, to the handing out of mini-ipods, cash, or soccer balls out of guilt and the desire to feel good about one’s self.

You should not give money to anyone other than the organization or missionary you have built a trusted relationship with who has an accountability system in place. That means that you do not direct where those funds go, but trust them to attribute the funds to the areas of most need. If you do not have a trusted relationship with accountability, then do not give money, period.

I’ve seen well meaning people destroy locals with handouts. I’ve also seen good-hearted Westerners get taken for a ride, only to lose a lot of money on an “orphanage” that was never built.

Dependency is defined as “Anything you regularly do for someone that they can do for themselves.” That is unhealthy and detrimental to relationships of equality.

Build authentic relationships that seek to minimize imbalances of power through mutual learning, understanding, and trust.



It is not your responsibility or the missionary’s responsibility to meet all the needs of every single person.

Jesus didn’t do it, and we shouldn’t try either. You also shouldn’t expect the organization you are visiting to be able to fulfill every need of their beneficiaries. Focus on one’s vision is the most difficult, but most essential thing to maintain on the mission field when there are so many needs surrounding you. But effective ministries have clear focus, and they stick to it.

Your emotions will be stirred up, but during your time, try to decipher between your heart strings and God’s actual voice, and be obedient. When in doubt, check with your team leader to see what is appropriate.

Don’t try to “adopt” a kid or smuggle them in your suitcase, or hand out your email and address to “sponsor” someone. Don’t make promises you can’t keep and don’t put the missionary in the position to pick up your mess.

That’s not what you are there for. The reality is that in a few months you will go back to your normal life and most likely forget about the promises you made, or the people you met, while that missionary will still be there day in and day out with them. Make sure you run everything through them.

Remember that success is not defined by numbers, or even outcomes, but by whether or not you’ve been obedient to what the Father asked you to do. 



Ideally, you would have a plan in place before you go of how your impact will help the missionary/organization long term.

Most people don’t. So think about how you can make this trip actually change your life, not for five minutes, but for a lifetime.

Also spend time discussing with the missionary while you are there things that would be helpful for you to do once you return.

The biggest impact you might have may very well be after you leave when you can be an advocate for their cause.

Some ideas:

  • Fundraise for them (Run a 5k and give them the profits; Shave your head)
  • Film and edit an artistic video or photo collage they can use in support raising
  • Speak with your church/friends about them – begin an intentional dialogue about missionary care
  • Sponsor the missionary monthly- stay in touch with them- offer support from a distance
  • Sponsor a child/woman/staff member monthly (only through the organization; not as an individual)
  • If they have products they sell–help them find a market for it (Host jewelry parties, etc)
  • Volunteer from home (website design, grant writing, financial book keeping)
  • Make a commitment to volunteer long-term with them overseas (Ideally 6 months or longer; 1-2 year commitment preferred)
  • Send over gifts for the missionary or needed items (especially around the holidays)
  • Stay updated on when they will furlough and offer your home, your car, your babysitting skills, and talk to your church about them speaking (most missionaries are usually broke — find fun ways to bless them)


Helpful follow up reading:
Toxic Charity
Helping without Hurting in Short Term Missions Leader’s Guide


How have you seen short term missions done well? Do you have any ideas to add to this list?

Originally published on February 17, 2015 here; adapted for A Life Overseas.

profile photo blog2Sarita Hartz is a writer, speaker, former missionary, and non-profit director, who tackles issues of missions, infertility, travel, and how to live wholehearted, in her blog Whole, found at www.saritahartz.com. She just finished her first book, Whole, and lives in California with her husband Tyson, and fur baby, Rosie. You can find her on Facebook as Sarita Hartz.

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  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Thank you, Sarita, for allowing us to reprint this information. So practical and helpful! And so brave in actually saying these things. (As I told you before, I was never able to garner enough courage to say these things myself.) It’s easy for those of us on the field to look at unhelpful and unhealthy STMs but not know how to fix any of it. This is a landmark article for that — really carefully thought-through alternatives to the norm. Thanks again! I hope it blesses many short term teams and the missionaries and locals they visit!

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks so much Elizabeth! I’m really honored you guys allowed me to share from my experience and I hope this opens up a larger conversation around how we can continue to support missions in healthier ways!

      • Dale Welch

        I hear so many complaints about short term missionary trips and the expenses involved with it that could be used so well elsewhere…
        But you have to look at STM as a PR and training ground for the future.
        Many many people see missions as a waste of money, but those who have been on a STM are the best advocates for missions. And possibly a new source of funding for the mission they were supporting.
        Giving a list of things the missionaries need and encouraging each participant to bring those items with them can be a real help for things not available locally.
        Start a Facebook group for your STM participants to keep in touch and see what is happening and what will support the mission long term.
        And make sure and build in to the work some baby holding because they will never forget it. And ten years later they may still be wanting to send support.

  • Continuing to appreciate this series!

  • Julee

    lol, thanks for saying the things we are thinking!

  • Perhaps it is an issue of pride, but I struggle with the idea of “missionary care”. I do like the general list and how this is approached though, it gives a lot to think about. Am sharing this with my global team. The ideas of coming to serve those serving is great and I like the focus on bringing a certain skill set (counseling, nursing, etc).

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Hey Kahlil can you explain what you mean about it being an issue of pride? Do you mean as a missionary you aren’t sure you want people caring for you?

      • The pride issue – I generally don’t like being “Cared for” by those I don’t know, esp. those that are only here for a short period of time…and this extends to me being a missionary as well, having people come and do programs for the staff (missionaries and national staff) or bring care packages, etc. It is just something I struggle with personally and generally don’t benefit from it, though I see how others love these interactions and are blessed. If I know the people or have a relationship with them already in some fashion it isn’t a big deal, but at the end of the day I’d rather serve than be served, and that is the struggle.

        • Neal Pirolo

          Ya, it is probably a “pride” issue. We all struggle with that. Yes, Jesus came to minister, not to be ministered unto. HOWEVER, He WAS ministered unto…continually. There were women who followed Him around, probably washed His underware! And stuff like that!

  • Arthur Davis

    I wonder if there’s one thing that might draw together a few of the things Sarita is saying: the terminology change from “mission trips” to exposure trips. This helps shift our attitude from doing towards listening/observing; from giving towards learning; from meeting needs towards recognising our own neediness. What do you reckon?

    • I agree, I like the idea of changing the name from “mission” to “exposure”, unless there is a specific need being met…such as a service team or support project.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Arthur, that is a really thoughtful idea. One of the pivotal pieces I always share with short terms teams before they travel, is to be a learner because mostly the trip will not be about as much as they give, as it will be what they receive. Perhaps if there was a more intensive selection process around who is going and then follow through for long term engagement then these trips would be more financially justifiable. As it stands right now, it is so hard to wrap my head around the costs of these trips when I know what it could do if I was able to actually put that money to good use for sustainable projects. But if there is a framework for how these “exposure trips” will provide long term engagement and follow through to support the ministry and nationals then it could potentially be worth it.

      • The expense of bringing over foreigners is something that really bothers me too, esp. here in Lebanon. Lebanon as a country has several seminaries and many churches that are active in sending missionaries out into their communities and elsewhere into the Middle East, yet we depend so much on foreign income, support, and staff to come and “get things done.”

        While I do understand the situation quite well I struggle with a church who my wife and I were/are part of (we are leaving, but only due to her taking a paid position at another local church) that is in the process of hiring a pastor. The church is an English speaking church that serves the working class/expat community, so we have lots of SE Asians and various African nations represented. The budget that was developed for the pastor and his family to come from the US to Lebanon was nearly $80,000 set up and moving costs and a little over $100,000/year after. Now, a Lebanese pastor could serve in this role, but as it is a church of expats I think the foreign pastor is appropriate in this context. I still struggle with the thousands of dollars per month going into this endeavor. The set up costs alone could fund several national workers/pastors for several years.

        At the end I see how this church example is different, but in my own program I struggle with seeing teams come over just to do Bible school or fun programs at a minimum of $2000/person (airfare alone is nearly $1500) when we have capable staff and nationals that can do that sort of thing. If the resources, man power and finances, went into sustainable programs we could see those teams rebuild our playground, help with the electrical/water problems, and even come as trainers/support for our staff. If the physical needs and staff needs are being met the children’s needs will be met as well.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          As someone who lived in the Middle East and watched the vibrant churches serve those around them, I am so glad you wrote this. It’s so important for people to get the perspective of nationals who know so much more about what is going on than outsiders. Thank you.

      • Arthur Davis

        Hi Sarita. In Australia, we don’t really have American-style “STM” (see my comment on your first post) and it’s not too unusual for people to be thinking about it in terms of learning and exposure. (The STM debate often seems kind of USA-centric to me.) So I reckon there are other approaches out there which instead of trying to offer some kind of improved STM, have simply been doing a lot less of it, and so there’s space for exposure trips as more of an occasional or once-off thing.

    • Joshua Barron

      Next month we’re hosting a “short term” group. But we’re really hosting an exposure trip (though we’ve not called it that). The visitors will, for about five days, be multi-cultural students alongside the national students at our Discipleship Training School, which is far away from any paved road. They will also accompany the national students on “foot safaris,” observing as they do ministry in the villages.

      (We’re in East Africa; the visitors are americans.)

  • MaDonna

    I appreciate your courage and your humility in writing this series. I remember in your other post that you mentioned a lot of bashing going on about this topic – and for one that is why I stopped reading posts regarding STM. But, I wondered about your list and thought I’d read it. So glad I did – you have some good points and great suggestions that are tangible. Thanks!

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks MaDonna I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  • Jody Hesler

    Amen! Thank you!

  • Nick Hathaway

    This is the best thing I’ve read about missions in general, not just short term missions. I’ve read several missiology books and taken a course on missions. These principles apply to long term missions as well because usually we’re usually just coming alongside indigenous people for a short while (even if that short while is 60 years.)
    It was profoundly eye-opening when I went on one mission trip with a fortune 500 business man and he was put to work mixing cement while the mission’s business was floundering and not finding a market. I understand it’s very hard to utilize every short term missionary that comes through but I found something wanting. I also deal with youth who want to go to the most exotic places. I’d like to tell them, why don’t you save up your money and go on a vacation to that country instead of calling it a mission trip.
    All that being said, we have been greatly blessed to work with several organizations over and over again. We’ve tried to put in practice what they’ve taught us about cultural engagement in our own backyard. It’s very difficult to be a missionary in your hometown.
    I know that such profound wisdom is born out of pain and suffering. Many folks trying to help their communities here and abroad have been harmed by short term missionaries. Thank you for speaking out of that pain.

  • maia manchester

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU for writing this! It is hard to be in a church watching people get excited about a short term mission’s trip when I have been on the other end and watched what happened when they left. An exception to this would be a team I joined to mexico that fixed orphanage bikes, prayed over the missonaries and the property they were looking at buying, and did general cleaning, weeding, storage, and painting at the local church. None of it was glamorous or particularly exciting, a lot of it was just really hard work, but it was what needed to be done and everyone benefitted from it because there was a relationship there and the leaders asked what was needed and followed directions. We also watched a world cup game with the locals and a later one with the missionary families there, so not all of it was hard work, but all of it was meaningful.

  • You did an unbelievable job writing this which only brings me to conclude it wasn’t you but the holy Spirit who moved you.

  • Tony

    What is “Breaking Bad” and why is it helpful for a Christian missionary to watch it? Is it like the Jesus video?

  • Philip Oluwashina

    Good evening, do you have any mission Field in China? I like to serve in any of your field in China if yes. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    What in the world does “pour into” mean? Sounds like Christianese to me. Very off putting.

    • Nancy Mansfield

      Ummm… she is a Christian speaking to Christians about Christian missionary work.

      • Anonymous

        Maybe I should have said “Christian jargon”. I am a Christian who wants us to lose the jargon that separates us from others. “Love on”, “brag on”, “pour into” “heart for” these are terms that only a certain segment of Christianity uses and seems to feel like part of a separate club.

  • Neal Pirolo

    Great article…about time some of these issues are hit head on! I live in San Diego. Every holiday I “fear” that the Baja Peninsula is going to sink into the ocean from the weight of all the well-meaning church groups who go down to “minister.” HOWEVER, on the other hand (and, according to Papa in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, there always is another hand), my wife has led 47 short term teams. She has done well in “reproducing” herself in the team members becoming more intentionally engaged in some level of cross-cultural outreach ministry. And her national ministry partners are grateful for the work her teams do. Her trips are three weeks, plus the two weekends. My short term work is teaching specialized curriculum asked for my national friends. I’m out for four weeks, twice a year.

  • Paula

    I feel bad now that we did a short term trip to Haiti. I always wanted to visit an orphanage since I was a teenager. I finally got the opportunity 30 yrs later. My husband and I now empty nesters made the trip. My husband worked hard building and painting, and yes I held the babies. We were exposed to a completely different culture. I thought we were doing good. If this type of visitation is harmful to the children and stressful to the long term missionaries why do so many organizations continue to offer it. Sorry I didn’t realize some of the truths in this article till after we made the trip.

    • Matt Arnett

      You have to realize this is one view point from one person. As a long term missionary, I see a lot of benefits to short term missions, when done properly. We are bringing a team to Uganda next summer and though it is stressful for me, the director of the organization, I wouldn’t change it for anything.

      One you help bring awareness to your friends, family, and church members of the efforts being made by that organization. Something a lot of us small organizations deeply need. Second, you are helping bring smiles to babies and relieving the missionaries of something, if nothing more than a familiar face to talk to in a familiar language. One of the biggest issues we face is being able to connect to people and not always being the holy missionary all the time. We want to be people and enjoy conversation too. So you being there is helpful in that way too.

      Yes there are wrong ways to do short term missions, but this isn’t completely on point with everybody’s view. If the organization sent you there, then they had a purpose for you.

    • Debra Cole

      Paula you did nothing wrong..i would say you would have been a blessing also to the workers, giving them some relief while you are giving some attention to the babies. Ive been a full-time missionary for 5.5yrs, we are very grateful for our short-term missionaries. Though i agree with the article on a whole, a small percentage of it i would not agree.

  • Bill Derham

    Thank you for this article. I have been intensively involved with ministry to an in Germany for the last few years, talking to British missionaries and German people three or four times a week on the phone, praying and counselling on the phone and visiting for a month or so at a time. I have been invited to speak a few times but last January I found I was preaching quite a lot. I am going again soon but I was stunned when the pulpit invitations dried up. I started asking myself and God where I went wrong, if it is still worth going, what I am going to do? I started finding answers to these questions and I am looking forward to Holy Spirit surprises but this article helped me to see that building relationships and encouraging people are so important. When I read the gospels, I see a lot of important things Jesus did were ministering one to one or spontaneously interacting with small groups.

  • Rachel

    Thank you for your article. I’ve been trying to figure out what I think about short-term missions trips. You are spot-on when you say that good intentions aren’t enough!

    There are so many perspectives including the economic perspective (i.e. https://nicaraguamissionsmadness.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/economics-101-supporting-instead-of-crippling-local-business/) that I am trying to sort through.

  • Malcolm

    This post was amazing! It provided me with the knowledge that I had been missing for short term missions. I was a person that believed missions were about holding babies and not so much about the day to day grind of mission work. I can see now that the actual missionaries need more support than I originally thought.

    Thank you Sarita for this post, I loved it and it was truly needed!

  • Sarita, thank you so much for this article! I have been carefully considering how my short-term missions (7 weeks) can best make a lasting impact, and your point #1 of pouring into the missionary and point #4 about having a specific skill set to fill a real need were extremely helpful, as it brought home things I’d already been thinking about. As did the whole article. I will definitely be coming back to this in the next few months as I prepare.

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