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Race, Immorality and Money in the American Baha段 Community:

Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly

 

Juan R. I. Cole

Abstract



[1] Bob Ballenger/Steve Scholl, 21 July 1986, Dialogue Magazine Archives (hereafter DMA).

[2] Juan R. I. Cole, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha段 Faith in the Nineteenth Century Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Peter Smith, The Babi and Baha'i Religions: From Messianic Shi`ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[3] Robert H. Stockman, The Baha'i Faith in America , 2 vols. (Wilmette, Ill. and Oxford: Baha'i Publishing Trust and George Ronald, 1985-1995); R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, Music, Devotions and Mashriqu値-Adhkar: Studies in Babi and Baha'i History Volume 4 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987).

[4] Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Vintage Books, 1992); see especially chapter one, 鉄unshine or Noir, and chapter six, 哲ew Confessions; and Norman M. Klein, The history of forgetting : Los Angeles and the erasure of memory (London and New York : Verso, 1997).

[5] John Gregory Dunne, 鄭ngels of L.A., New York Review of Books, vol. 45, no. 9 (May, 1998), p. 17; this article is also the source for the statistics cited.

[6] Paul Numrich, 鉄chism in the Sinhalese Buddhist Community of Los Angeles, forthcoming.

[7] Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Competing Visions of Islam in the United States: A Study of Los Angeles (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

[8] For the story of dialogue Magazine see Juan R. I. Cole, 撤ress Censorship in the Baha段 Faith and the dialogue Affair. forthcoming.

[9] Juan R. I. Cole, 典he Baha段 Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 37, no. 2 (June, 1998), pp. 234-248.

[10] Transcript of tape of James Nelson speech, 19 July 1986, DMA.

[11] 鏑.A. LSA Reaction, typescript, summer, 1986.

[12] Manila Lee in Ibid.

[13] Robert C. Henderson/Baha段s of Los Angeles, California, 21 July 1986, DMA.

[14] 鄭ftermath, anon. typescript, circa August, 1986, DMA.

[15] Kazemzadeh quoted in ibid.

[16] Sisson quoted in ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Richard Hollinger/Anna Lee Strasburg, 23 September 1986, DMA.

[19] 迭obert Henderson Talk, Los Angeles Baha段 Center, 14 March 1987, partial transcript. DMA.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22]Manila Lee quoted in 典he Decline and Fall of the Los Angeles Local Spiritual Assembly, typescript, 1987, DMA.

[23] 迭obert Henderson Talk,

[24] 迭obert Henderson Talk,

[25] Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Claudia Der-Martirosian, and Georges Sabbagh, 溺iddle Easterners: A New Kind of Immigrant, in Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, eds., Ethnic Los Angeles (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996), pp. 350-352; Mehdi Bozorgmehr, 的ranians, in David W. Haines, ed., Case Studies in Diversity: Refugees in America in the 1990s (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996), pp. 85-103; for this point see pp. 92-93; idem, 的nternal ethnicity: Iranians in Los Angeles, Sociological Perspectives 40, no. 3 (1997):387-408; and for a textured overview see Ron Kelley, Jonathan Friedlander, and Anita Colby, eds., Irangeles (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993)

[26] 典he Persian Baha段s of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

[27] Kelley, et al., Irangeles, pp. 125-131.

[28] Lee in 鏑.A. LSA Reaction, summer, 1986.

[29] 典he Persian Baha段s of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

[30] Bozorgmehr et al., 溺iddle Easterners: A New Kind of Immigrant, pp. 359-373; Bozorgmehr, 的ranians, pp. 98-101.

[31] 典he Persian Baha段s of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

[32] 典he Persian Baha段s of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

[33] Manila Lee quoted in 泥ecline and Fall.

[34] David M. Grant, Melvin L. Oliver, and Angela D. James, 鄭frican-Americans: Social and Economic Bifurcation, in Bozorgmehr and Waldinger, Ethnic Los Angeles, pp. 379-411.

[35] Lee in 泥ecline.

[36] Personal communication from an African-American Baha段 of Los Angeles, Dec. 3, 1997.

[37] 鏑A/LSA Restored: NSA Meeting in L.A. 19 March 88, typescript transcript, DMA.

[38] Henderson in Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Henderson in 鏑A/LSA Restored: NSA Meeting in L.A. 19 March 88.

[41] Kazemzadeh in 鏑A/LSA Restored: NSA Meeting in L.A. 19 March 88, typescript transcript, DMA.

[42] Lee in 泥ecline.




The response of Dr. Robert Stockman may be found here:

Stockman Response

(That of Dr. Mike McMullen is not yet online).



Religion (2000) 30, 2:141-147 doi:10.1006/reli.2000.0242, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

 

Response

 

JUAN R. I. COLE

 

My thanks to Mike McMullen for his comments on the article, and for his kind words on some of its strengths. I have found his own work on the Atlanta Baha段 community very useful. However, the purpose of this exchange is surely the somewhat un-Baha段-like task of addressing our differences. First of all, I should signal to academic readers why I think my article might be problematic for conservative Baha段s. The Baha段 culture is utopian, and Baha段s often wish to present the inner workings of their community life as perfect. They see their administrative order as an alternative to the politics of the corrupt 双ld world order, which is under the control of powerful individuals and marred by individualist selfishness. That some of these same forces are at work within their own administration is therefore a proposition they find difficult to entertain.

Moreover, a great deal of work goes into preserving the utopian point of view. In my experience, Baha段 governance structures are deliberately kept opaque. Conservative Baha段s are very skeptical that anything serious can even be known about their governance processes outside official pronouncements. Baha段s are discouraged from speaking of community governance issues except in carefully controlled venues. Baha段 authorities, who surround themselves with an aura of divine guidance, keep believers in line by appealing to the welfare and unity of the community, and if these appeals fail then implicit or explicit threats of disfellowshipping and even shunning are invoked. Non-Baha段s are not allowed to attend the nineteen day feast, the main 礎usiness meeting of the local community, or the national convention held in April each year in Wilmette. (Among religious bodies of any size in the U.S., the annual Baha段 national convention is the only one from which journalists are systematically excluded). Such a closed 叢olitical culture makes the gathering of quantitative information extremely difficult, if not impossible. Two friends of mine in the Los Angeles community who did attempt to conduct a poll some years ago were instructed to desist by the local spiritual assembly (LSA), and I frankly do not believe such research would be allowed. That is, the Baha段s would be ordered by their authorities not to cooperate with it. The lack of quantitative evidence is, in short, hardly my fault, but would bedevil anyone who took up this sort of subject. Indeed, as I made clear, the very publication of articles about the incident was also forbidden by Robert Henderson, so asking for quantitative data in addition seems unrealistic. On the other hand, historians very seldom have the sort of complete set of quantitative information available to contem- porary, synchronic disciplines like sociology, and we have developed techniques to compensate for this. I do not think it terribly controversial, for instance, to suggest that when only two hundred out of 1200 local Baha段s showed up to see the national spiritual assembly (NSA) members in 1988, this poor attendance was a sign of disgruntlement with that body, given much higher attendance rates at other events.

Given the deliberate opaqueness of Baha段 culture and contemporary history, what is remarkable is that I gained access to dozens of documents on this issue from various key players, which survived in the Dialogue magazine archives. I therefore have what is, from a historian痴 point of view, a very solid documentary base. It includes interviews with local assembly members and verbatim transcripts of in-house speeches by Baha段 officials; a sort of evidence that is almost never available for writing about the contemporary

_ 2000 Academic Press 0048721X/00/000000+00 r 35.00/ p. 141

 

Baha段 community. It should also be remembered that I was myself a Persian speaking Baha段 in the Los Angeles area periodically between 19791984, attended feast there and had a large network of friends from all the major ethnic groups. So although I was not living there at the time of the dissolution, I knew a great deal from first-hand experience about the conditions that precipitated the crisis. I also had telephone conversations and correspondence at the time with Baha段s present.

McMullen痴 conclusion that my documentary base for the article is inadequate to the task thus seems to me overdrawn. The unpublished articles prepared for Dialogue magazine on the dissolution involved interviews with dozens of key participants. Since the Dialogue staff consisted of professional journalists and young academics, the interviews were conducted professionally (a conclusion bolstered by the obvious quality of information and clarity of writing in the reports). I used many letters from and to Scholl and others, including letters generated by the NSA, and also speeches by its members. This amounts to an extensive set of documentation, not 疎 few anonymous reports. As McMullen knows, I had to keep some of my informants anonymous because they might otherwise be disfellowshipped for speaking to me about the incident. For that reason I cannot identify the 双utside observers, or the other persons for whom he demands names. Indeed, I am afraid that some friends of mine who did not cooperate might nevertheless be punished for this article because of guilt by association. My informants were friends made when I was a member of the Southern Californian Baha段 community in the early 1980s, but they are not well known in the Baha段 community. Any anthropologist who worked in a village would be in the same position if he thought his ethnographic field report might in any way harm the villagers, and preserving respondents anonymity simply does not invalidate social science findings. All that said, I would be the first to admit that it is desirable that contemporary historians mine a greater quantity and diversity of sources in coming to further conclusions about the history of the Los Angeles Baha段 community since 1980. My point of view on the matter is only one of several possible views, and it derives from the particular cache of information and social networks to which I had access, as well as my own experiences in southern California. I think these sources sufficiently solid and broad to allow us to come to some conclusions about what happened and why, but the narrative will surely be nuanced by further information. I am the first social historian to attempt a focused journal article on the inner politics of the contemporary American Baha段 community, and the endeavour has all the drawbacks of a pioneering attempt. It also has the virtue, in my view, of laying issues and a data set on the table for social scientists to argue about; issues and data that had been wholly absent from the scholarly record (and, indeed, from virtually any sort of record). The lack of academic literature on the contemporary Baha段s is astonishing if one considers that we claim a U.S. membership size similar to that of the Quakers and Unitarians, and have been established in the country since the 1890s! I would welcome it if McMullen, Stockman and others would conduct further research on these events and offer alternative interpretations of the data. That is a very different matter, however, from simply accepting official explanations and relying on an idealised portrait of Baha段 community functioning.

As I said in my article, the Los Angeles community did better in integrating the Iranians into the pre-existing community than did many others. Often in California the previous small American community was simply swamped by the newcomers, and as a result, many of the Americans left the faith. Where there were only a handful of Iranians in a fair-sized U.S. community, they often felt somewhat alienated. I have seen these

142 J. R. I. Cole

 

phenomena with my own eyes and they regularly crop up in the e-mail interviews I have been conducting with dozens of Baha段s and ex-Baha段s. Los Angeles was special in having whites, African泡mericans and Iranians in roughly similar proportions and in retaining all three groups. I do not understand why McMullen thinks that I glossed over Baha段s being governed by values that stress unity, since I say that explicitly. There are different models for unity in the Baha段 community, however. Some Baha段s stress unity in diversity, others stress conformism. Iranian Baha段s at times were not allowed by the Baha段 authorities even to have all-Persian meetings. That is, the kind of unity stressed by the Baha段 authorities in this case appears to me to be a demand for uniformity and regimentation rather than a unity in diversity.

In the sociology of religion, an episcopal ecclesiastical structure refers not necessarily to the presence of bishops but rather to the presence of hierarchy as opposed to go-it-alone local religious bodies. I disagree entirely about the absence of the lay equivalent of 礎ishops or the claim that they have no authority. The individuals appointed Hands of the Cause of God expelled adherents judged to be schismatics from the Baha段 faith in the 1960s and caused them to be shunned, which seems to me the exercise of quite central authority. Nowadays the members of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, especially including those at the International Teaching Centre in Haifa, claim the authority to interpret the Baha段 covenant and to threaten individual Baha段s with excommunication for publicly expressing the views at variance with their conception of 双rthodoxy. Since they advise the house of justice on such shunning, these claims are credible. Shunning is the central control mechanism in the Baha段 system, and the advisers on its use are the counsellors and their subordinates. It simply is not true that they exercise no authority and, indeed, liberal Baha段s often live in terror of them.

While it is true that conservative Baha段s object to categorising Baha段s as liberals or conservatives, as gentle or hard-line, for a sociologist to suggest that such divisions do not exist in the community is frankly bizarre. Conservative Baha段s believe it is wrong to criticise the Baha段 institutions publicly. They support the NSA痴 right to act as it pleases, even arbitrarily. They firmly support the demand that everything written by Baha段s about their religion be subject to in-house censorship (鼠iterature review). They believe the House of Justice is infallible in all its doings. They believe that women should not be allowed to serve on the Universal House of Justice. They are convinced that civil governments will eventually be supplanted by the Baha段 institutions, which will rule as a theocracy. Shunning heterodox Baha段s or 祖ovenant breakers is central to their religious identity. They are fiercely anti-intellectual and often consider indepen-dent thinking a sign of 祖ovenant breaking. They are scriptural literalists, preferring any statement in the Baha段 scriptures to the findings of scientists or historians. In contrast, liberal Baha段s believe that the Baha段 institutions are still embryonic and often act immaturely, and that criticising them for the arbitrary exercise of power is good and necessary. They tend to protest when a Baha段 governing body appears to over-reach its scriptural authority. They are uncomfortable with censorship and often quietly decline to cooperate with it. They believe the Universal House of Justice痴 authority to be limited to legislation, and admit the possibility that women will eventually serve on that body. They see Baha段 institutions as complementary to civil governments, and reject the belief in a future theocracy. They are uncomfortable with the practice of shunning. They admire the intellectual life, and are not afraid to think independently. They believe that where science and scripture are in apparent conflict, science should be preferred, and they generally reject a literalist approach to scripture. I

Response 143

 

I am just giving a few illustrative differences. This divide between liberals and conserva -tives was not central to the Los Angeles crisis, though it did colour perceptions of that event on both sides. It is also possible that the dim view taken by liberal Angeleno Baha段s to the NSA痴 intervention in 1986, and the young liberal intellectuals desire to report on these events, were among the factors that began to convince the hard-liners in the NSA and in Haifa that a concerted effort had to be made to chase Baha段 liberals and intellectuals out of the religion.

That both sets of views not only existed in the community then but continue to do so is quite obvious (and on a scale that could in fact be quantified if someone cared to do it) on the talisman@indiana.edu Baha段 discussion list run by Professor John Walbridge from Indiana University in 19941996 (available in part at http://www-personal. umich.edu/~jrcole/talisman.htm), as well as on subsequent e-mail forums such as talk.religion.bahai, available and searchable at www.dejanews.com. Denying that these deep divisions even exist functions for some conservative Baha段s as a way of drawing the veil over how power actually works in the community. With regard to how frequently local assemblies are dissolved, I relied on Robert Henderson痴 own testimony. He said,

I値l tell you that, in my experience, I have been a member of the national assembly now for, I think, four years. And I have seen the national assembly dissolve other local assemblies. And I have seen them restored. I致e seen the national assembly restore those communities. And, what was happening was evident to both the people on the local level as well as it was to the national assembly. (然obert Henderson Talk, Los Angeles Baha段 Centre, 14 March 1987, partial transcript, DMA).

If the secretary general had seen several other local assemblies dissolved in the course of only a few years, then assemblies were being impeached more often than is usually recognised. Since the disbanding of small local assemblies would not be known beyond their locality, and since Henderson痴 censorship apparatus prevented the publication of such news, such steps could be taken in relative secrecy. I do not believe that the Baha段 authorities would release information about frequency and numbers, but assemblies are dissolved. I know one was impeached in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s because its chairman was overly charismatic and sectarian. The NSA was planning the dissolution of an assembly in Arkansas because it had gay members in 1982 when one of its members, Allan Ward, was unexpectedly elected to the national body. He was not allowed to take his seat on the NSA, which destroyed his national reputation. There is another possibility, of course, which is that Henderson was lying when he made the above statement to the Los Angeles Baha段s. Why would he do that? He may have wished to make it seem that the NSA action was more routine than it then appeared, as a way of legitimising it. He may have wished to project the image of a powerful leader who had intervened in several local communities. If he was lying, then McMullen and Stockman are correct that the Los Angeles incident was unusual. If they are not in a position to know for sure, however, then I can hardly be expected to, nor do I see how they can blame me for taking seriously a public, official pronouncement of the secretary general of the organisation. Here again the very opaqueness of Baha段 governance to public scrutiny serves as a powerful control mechanism, provoking constant anxiety and uncertainty about what is really possible.

Henderson痴 election as NSA secretary in 1984 is mysterious because he simply did not have a national reputation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was known to be the son of Wilma Ellis, who herself had served on the NSA until she was made a

144 J. R. I. Cole

 

continental counsellor, and who married long-time NSA member Firuz Kazemzadeh four years later. One knowledgeable Baha段 working in the U.S. national Baha段 centre in 1983 told me that he and the other staffmembers were surprised by Henderson痴 election because they had never heard of him. As for my assertion that the NSA decided in the end that the dissolution had failed as an experiment, I believe this conclusion was justified by their having ended it after only two years and having refrained from acting in this way with the other major urban communities, many of which had similar problems.

I have some disagreements with McMullen痴 sketch of the development of Baha段 authority structures, which I think is unhistorical and contains several errors. He attributes several positions to 壮cripture which are nowhere to be found there. A 素reedom of speech that is limited to carefully controlled administrative venues is no freedom at all. Even in the Communist Party or the army a subordinate can express critique internally. The mark of true freedom of expression is that it can occur outside channels without being branded subversive, and I am afraid that such freedom is entirely lacking in the Baha段 administration. Although the Baha段 electoral system can produce turnover in small communities, the bigger the community, the more likely it is that it will produce incumbents who cannot be unseated as long as they continue to be available as candidates every year. This phenomenon is obvious at the national level in the U.S.

I thank McMullen very much for his important point that experience of the Los Angeles Baha段 community with ethnic diversity has been one of learning. As someone who knew the community fairly well in the 1980s, I have a keen appreciation for the hard work that the rank and file often did in attempting to overcome their differences. Indeed, there were several Iranian LSA members already in the mid-1980s. The real questions are whether the NSA痴 intervention in local affairs helped or hindered this process; whether the damage to local reputations and morale was justified; and whether the Baha段 administration is flexible enough to resolve community problems in the long run.

I am also grateful to Robert Stockman for taking the time to respond. I shall mainly concentrate on those remarks that do not replicate McMullen痴 observations. For that reason I shall not elaborate here on my defense of the quality and quantity of the documents in the Dialogue magazine archives, nor my evidence (from Henderson himself) that local assemblies are regularly dissolved. Stockman paradoxically appears to doubt both that Henderson forbade the publication of the Dialogue report on the Los Angeles crisis, and that his reasons for doing so were anything other than questions of quality. Fortunately, I have a copy of the letter Henderson sent to the relevant Dialogue editor, dated June 30 1987. He wrote,

 

禅his letter is to confirm our telephone conversation today, in which you were advised that the National Spiritual Assembly declined your request for permission to publish the article entitled 然oots of Crisis: Background on the Dissolution of the LA Assembly. As I explained to you, the situation is still being worked on and a complete set of the facts pertaining to the dissolution is unavailable and an objective report of the case cannot be written. Furthermore, publication of the article, as currently presented, could harm individuals and impede the efforts of the institutions now laboring to rebuild the spiritual foundation of the community.

It is clear from this letter that the censorship was ordered for institutional purposes and not because of poor reporting. Nor would it have been proper in a true civil society
Response 145

 

organisation for Henderson to decide whether reporting on him was of sufficient quality to warrant being published.

I do not deny that the documentary base for the article would be strengthened by access to confidential records such as the deliberations of the NSA. To suggest that we cannot know anything without knowing everything, however, is a Hegelian fallacy. The long speeches by three NSA members that survive in transcript in the Dialogue archives go a long way toward revealing their mindset and motives. Henderson痴 office has not cooperated with my requests for documentation for my historical work since 1996, and I believe Stockman knows very well how unrealistic is his suggestion that he would have been willing to be interviewed by me for this article. I completely disagree with the charge that official reasoning for the dissolution of the assembly is 訴mperfectly represented or that information about institutional reasoning is 祖ompletely absent. Given the extensive analysis to which I subject a number of the official speeches and the lengthy quotations from them I present, such an accusation seems to me wholly unsubstantiated. I think what is really being objected to is that the official point of view is not the only one being presented. It is a feature of official Baha段 discourse that minority and dissident points of view are vigorously suppressed in public documents and discourse, a convention that my article disrupts. (Here is another resemblance between Los Angeles culture and the Baha段 administration: both tend to be dominated by a sort of boosterism that insistently denies the problematic aspects of their projects.) That Stockman can draw a counter-narrative from the article whereby he justifies the NSA痴 intervention suggests to me that, contrary to his allegations, I have done a very good job of presenting the full range of evidence, including official reasoning and motives. We shall simply have to disagree about whether Baha段 officials engage in subtle campaigning and manipulation of elections. Baha段 elections are conducted without nominations or overt campaigning, and many Baha段s believe that the results of the polls are divinely appointed. In fact, there are always informal candidates, and incumbents are especially likely to be re-elected in larger communities and nationally. Appointing a Baha段 to a highly visible committee and then printing the person痴 name and picture in an official organ are obvious means by which the administration has long influenced the outcome of national elections. The techniques used with the Council of Nineteen were similar. Appointing only nine members would have been too much like a formal nomination procedure to be seen as legitimate. Moreover, it was desirable that a larger pool of future candidates be anointed and given some experience, since LSA members sometimes move out of their localities, creating vacancies. That the publication of the council痴 picture seemed very much like campaigning was an observation guiltily made by one of the council members themselves, and does not originate from me. At the time the photograph was published it was entirely possible that elections would have been held sooner than they actually were.

With regard to the importance of money, Stockman痴 remarks, including his footnote, appear to me less than forthright. He continues to elide the fact that Henderson痴 substantial salary and perquisites, as well as stipends and perquisites bestowed on some other members of the national assembly, were and are carefully hidden from the public, including the Baha段 public. That the NSA is audited is irrelevant to this consideration because these payments are not illicit, whatever their exact ethical status or propriety, and so they would pass auditing. (Congressional junkets are also not illegal, but they can be questionable; they could not be questioned, of course, if they were not reported, or if congressmen declared themselves 創ot accountable to the public.) In any case, many elements of the national budget are fixed

146 J. R. I. Cole

 

expenditures, including upkeep of buildings, payment of salaried employees, and so forth. It is precisely the NSA stipends and perquisites that would get squeezed in any budget crunch, and were therefore at risk from episodes like the declining rate of giving to the Baha段 fund in Los Angeles. Stockman痴 suggestion that the steep decline in local giving in Los Angeles may have been partially offset by a rise in contributions sent directly to the NSA appears to be pure speculation (which is surprising, given that he should be in a position to confirm or deny such a phenomenon). It seems to me unlikely that persons disillusioned with Baha段 governance retained enough faith in the NSA to send substantial monies (which they had withheld from their own local community) two thousand miles away. Remember, too, the low attendance at the meeting with the NSA in 1988.

Stockman ends his critique by pointing to a number of things he says the article does not do, including comparing the Los Angeles situation to others across the country or looking at the entire period from about 1980 to the present. Since it was never my intention to accomplish these goals in this piece, however, I can hardly be faulted for failing to achieve them. (Nor, as Stockman knows, would the Baha段 authorities make available the documentation necessary for such tasks.) As for Los Angeles itself, since Henderson attempted to prevent any detailed public record of the crisis in the Baha段 community of Los Angeles from being published, it was heretofore impossible to gauge the long-term success of the community in dealing with its ethnic problems. Any such success, after all, could only be evaluated in the light of the issues that arose in the 1980s. I do maintain that Baha段s have on the whole had a (forced) amnesia about such problems. That I have provoked the Research Office of the NSA of the Baha段s of the United States into at least acknowledging publicly and in print that some version of these events did occur seems to me a major step forward in preparing for the sort of assessment for which Stockman now calls.

Response 147

 


 
 



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