Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

Cassi Davis talks about Tyler Perry, reprising Aunt Bam in “Madea’s Neighbors from Hell” and her relationship with God

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Aunt Bam is back! And so is Madea in Madea‘s Neighbors from Hell. The latest comedic and inspirational episode of the tough-as-a-drill sergeant old broad (played with cross-dressing gusto by creator her prolific Tyler Perry) and her sidekick Aunt Bam Murphy (Cassi Davis) is out on DVD, Digital HD, Video on Demand and Pay-Per-View today (4/22). Presented as a stage play (recorded before a live audience), this latest installment — like its stage and film predecessors — features a combination of broad comedy, inspirational music and life lessons. Perry, BTW, is reportedly taking a break from plays and movies to concentrate on continuing to develop scripted television (i.e. The Haves and Have Nots and Love Thy Neighbor) for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN cable channel.

In Neighbors from Hell, Madea’s neighborhood takes a turn for the worse when a foster mother moves in with her unruly kids.  Suspicious activity leads Madea to take justice into her own hands. With Aunt Bam by her side, Madea uses her unique wit and wisdom to get results.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Cassi Davis (also known for her role in House of Payne) about her ongoing role as Aunt Bam and her special relationship with Tyler Perry.

JWK: By this time, the role of Aunt Bam is probably second nature to you. Tell me about the character.

CASSI DAVIS: She’s really a second cousin to Madea…(laughs) I just found out this last play that she lives two doors down from Madea. I just found out we were neighbors!

JWK: So, that wasn’t revealed in previous installments?

CD: No.

JWK: You’ve played this character in stage and movie versions of Madea, correct?

CD: That’s correct.

JWK: So, tell me a little bit about Madea’s Neighbors from Hell.

CD: Basically, it is as all of Tyler’s movies and TV shows, I think he really tries to always give a theme of some sort. So, this particular one sheds light on the foster care system…Aunt Bam is sitting on her porch and she gets into knowing what the (new) neighbors are doing next door…Basically, the flip of it all is that Bam and Madea (become) the neighbors from hell…(But) it’s about children and the love for children and taking care children even if they’re not yours.

He (Tyler Perry) always has a Gospel theme that runs through. You know, with God on your side you can really, really do all things. That’s how I got into this whole business. It was the Lord’s doing.  That’s, basically, what the play is about.

JWK: What’s it like working with Tyler Perry?

CD: Oh, my. I am entertained every moment. Being on stage with Tyler, I have to make sure that I remember that I’m actually in the play and not just watching him (as) Madea. He’s just a funny guy. It’s a dream come true really to be on stage and be trusted to be comedic…You know, he allows us to just be true to our characters but at the same time be true to his piece…If he allows us to ad-lib sometimes, that’s a great feeling because to know that you’re in the same vein as the writer/creator/producer. It’s wonderful to work with Tyler.

JWK: Have you two become friends over the years?

CD: Oh, my God, yeah. You know we actually became friends the first year. I worked with in in ’05. That’s when we did Madea Goes to Jail. That’s before the movie version. That was just the play version. He and I became really, really close during that play. But, for all of the pieces, I am the one who separates, you know, “This is business” from Tyler) being my friend. I never cross the line with him to take advantage of a friendship. If he doesn’t hire me. I’m not standing in the wings saying “Uuuuh, what about me?” If he calls me I am just truly so grateful. I pass out on the floor every time, I’m so grateful. But, if he doesn’t call, I still support him because I just really love (his work). Over the years, because of our friendship, I really know that he loves the Lord. To see what God is doing for him and through him and to feel the positivity that (is put forth through) his plays, movies and TV shows, tt’s just a blessing to know him and to have the Lord put him in my life.

JWK: You’ve also said that you give God the credit for your own success.

CD: Oh, it’s nothing but God’s doing! I don’t have agents and managers. I’ve never had any acting classes…My resume really reads “Tyler Perry” dot, dot, dot. I’m not in that business like that (but) I’ve become a part of it…So, my testimony is true. The Lord really did do it for me.

I was in a play and Mr. Perry saw me in it and asked me to come and be a part of his play. I shunned him for about two and a half years and then finally one of my preacher friends said “Hey, fool, you’re gonna miss (God’s plan)! You better call that man and see if you can be in one of his plays!”

JWK: Why did you not jump at the opportunity?

CD: (I thought) “I don’t want to do that! Surely, God’s not blessing that!” She said, “Okay, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Your mind is really wrapped around the wrong thing! You are living in a box and you will miss (God’s plan)!” The messages and the themes and the way the plays motivate and speak to people. Sometimes people won’t go to a church building but they will watch a Madea play. Restoration and forgiveness and deliverance and a whole lot of things happen right there in the theater. I get reports and testimonies when I’m at the grocery store or when I’m at a gas station or wherever…Someone is always saying “You know what? I am so glad I saw that movie or this particular play or this particular TV show. It spoke to me and it made me want to do right. It made me want to go back to church. It made me want to establish a relationship with the Lord.”

I got out of the way and I allowed the Lord to use me and put me in that pathway.

JWK: What play were you in when Tyler Perry spotted you?

CD: I was at the National Black Theater Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was in a play called Barefoot in the Park. I was playing the telephone lady. I was actually in the play for only ten minutes — five in the first act and five in the second act. And Mr. Perry came to the festival that year. He was in the audience. Afterwards, he came back. This is a story. I mean it really is an epic. I wish someone would call Dick Wolf or it doesn’t make any difference who. But my story is a fabulous story! It’s like a fairy tale!

JWK: So, the story of how you met Tyler Perry could be a play or a movie itself. 

CD: You got that right! Yes, sir!

JWK: So, tell me a little about your personal story. Were you always a Christian?

CD: Yes, sir. I hail from the booming metropolis of Holly Springs, Mississippi. It’s a college town. I am the second oldest of four children. (We had) mom and dad in the home. It was beautiful growing up. We were reared in the church. My parents were Christians and they believed in the rod and they believed in the Word! (Jokes) And sometimes I think it was in that order! The rod came first and then the Word. But it worked! The principles and the things that my parents taught me growing up were just wonderful. I mean I didn’t know that they were going to pan out or I didn’t know that they were going to work for me as I began to mature. Because, you know, all kids and children are like “Can you just leave me alone? Do we have to go to church again?! We went last Sunday! Do we have to go every Sunday?!” My parents were very active in the United Methodist Church. So, I was always there and became active as youth. When I left home in ’84 and went to Spellman College and that’s a story within itself. I got to college and I began to explore life outside of just going to church every Sunday. My life just kind of spiraled out because I got involved in a whole lot of things that just were distracting (and) took me away from my mission — which was going to school. After that, you hit a rock, you hit a ditch and, of course, everybody, whether you believe in God or not, you call on somebody — anybody! — and you go “Help me get out of this!” I called on the Lord and He heard my cry. I established a relationship with Him in 1991.

I was in the Perfecting Church in Detroit, Michigan — Marvin Winans‘ church. I was doing a play with him. By that time my career began. I was doing a play with Chip Fields…and I was living a riotous life. The play ended and we went for Detroit for convocation. When I got there, Pastor Winans was preaching a sermon. (He said) “This day, whom will you serve? Will it be God? The choice is yours.”  And I heard that song: “Holy One, I never want to let You down. No more, I’ll never let you down…” And that has just been my heart’s desire ever since that September (of) 1991. I just fell in love with the Lord. He just opened my heart to receive His Word, His Will, His Way and I’ve really been trying to live that life…

…After I got into the Word and it began to minister to me, I was able to pull the words from the page and actually apply (them) to my life and (say) “Wow! I’m different!…I am what the Bible says I am!” It is a struggle to live holy. People don’t talk about living holy anymore. They just live with the compromise…But I’m human and I err and there is forgiveness. His Grace and His Mercy is what keeps me forever bent over and forever bowed down, forever worshiping and forever giving him praise. He’s…Almighty God!

So, I’m in this business but I really am not of it. I know it is the Lord’s doing and I can’t wait until the next project!

Right now I’m just wanting to do some things for students and kids back in Mississippi because this spotlight that the Lord has put me in has really opened the door for kids to listen to whatever I have to say. I’m not in there beating them up (by saying) “You better believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior or you’re going to go to hell!” I’m not doing that — but I can encourage them. I can tell them what positive about their lives and what they have to offer and what they have to look forward to. No matter what, you can still become whatever.

I am in this business and I don’t have the things that these phenomenal actors and actresses are doing. They have agents and managers and P.R. people and of that stuff. Mr. Perry will call me and ask me to be in his play and then all of those wonderful people over at Lionsgate say “Would you like to do some promotions”…And then someone asked if I would talk to you and here I am on the phone with you. So, my life is wonderful.

JWK: That takes up right up to this moment. What do you see in your future?

CD: I really don’t know what the Lord has planned for me next. I’m just excited to live day to day to day.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Submission deadline for UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition is Friday

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Three Finalists Will be Chosen to Compete for $5,000 Grand Pr

Three finalists to be chosen to compete for $5000 grand prize. The UP TV cable network and the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) want you to know that this Friday (4/25) is the final deadline for entries in the fourth annual UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition.  The contest promotes the development of faith-friendly, family entertainment screenplays with a focus on the American Black experience, and is a component of UP’s Official sponsorship of Film Life’s 18th annual ABFF, the preeminent festival promoting cultural diversity within the film and television industry.  The 2014 ABFF will be held June 19-22 in New York City for the first time.

Through Friday, submissions for the UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition are being solicited by the ABFF on the organization’s website and newsletter.  All eligible screenplays received will be sent to UP for review by a select panel, which will choose the top three screenplay finalists. At ABFF in June, a scene from each of the top three screenplays will be performed live by actors and directed by the screenwriter.  The Grand Prize winner of the Competition will be announced during the ABFF Honors awards presentation and will receive a check for $5,000.

“The UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition has grown every year and is now recognized as a prestigious opportunity for aspiring screenwriters,” says UP Vice Chairman.  “Each year, the competition draws a wide range of talent submitting work across various genres such as family adventure, comedy, romantic comedy sports and drama. The program is a great extension of our network’s commitment to showcasing uplifting, multicultural family-friendly stories.”

In past years, the UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition has generated films that UP has produced and aired on the network, including Somebody’s Child written by Siddeeqah Powell and directed by Gary Wheeler.  Two of the films – In the Meantime, written by Nzinga Kadalie Kemp, and Raising Izzie, written by David Martyn Conley – were produced and directed by Roger Bobb of Bobbcat Films, ABFF’s only two-time winner of the Best Film Award. Raising Izzie and Somebody’s Child are among the network’s most watched original movies.

Entries for UP’s Faith & Family Screenplay Competition should be formatted for a two-hour television movie, or approximately 88 minutes of content excluding commercials. The stories should center around faith-friendly, family-friendly topics with a focus on the American Black cultural experience with a wide audience appeal.  All submissions should be non-period pieces.  Please visit for complete details.

Submissions should be mailed to:
UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition 2014
c/o Film Life, Inc.
Chelsea Piers, Pier 62, Suite 303
New York, NY 10011

All submission materials must be received no later than 5 p.m. ET on Friday, April 25.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Easter Sunday TV treats: “Apple Mortgage Cake” on UP ; Martha Williamson’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” debuts on Hallmark

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Nice people are staging a comeback on TV. Tonight’s first-run offerings on UP TV and Hallmark Channel proves that programming about nice, decent people can be both entertaining and intelligent. The broadcast networks should take note. These two up-and-coming cable outlets are tapping into the pent-up demand for quality television that is neither cynical nor dark.  Together they are putting into practice the ideal of lighting a rather than cursing the darkness.

The UP Original Movie Apple Mortgage Cake debuts @ 7:00 PM (ET) with an encore at 11:00 PM (ET). 

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Synopsis (from the UP website): A five-year-old Angela Logan (Millie Davis) is in her grandmother Nellie’s (Darlene Cooke) kitchen in Teaneck, New Jersey learning how to make apple cake and discovering the joys of baking. Nellie tells Angela: “Cake makes people happy. One bowl, one mixer, and the right company, and you’re set for life.”

Thirty-five years later, Angela (Kimberly Elise) is a single, working mom with three teenage boys, Marcus (A.J. Saudin), William, (Stephan James) and Nicolas (Lamar Johnson). She juggles various jobs and helps with employment counseling at the local Mission. While thrilled to be in the family home where she learned to bake, the house is falling apart, with sections deemed uninhabitable by inspectors after storm and flood damage. Plus, the car just decided not to start – and the boys all still need shoes, books and food.

She has always made due until now – when her lender calls in the mortgage loan and puts her into foreclosure. Angela has 10 days to come up with $4000 or she loses her home. This is the true story of a woman who decides to bake 100 apple cakes and sell them at $40 each in order to save her home – and how this idea completely changes her and her family.

As word of her “bake sale” ripples out through neighbors, friends, her church and even old flames, such as Melvin (Kevin Hanchard), the story soon spreads to the news, locally, nationally and internationally. Orders fly in from all over the world. Angela is taken off guard by the overwhelming support. But soon, this fiercely independent woman learns to depend on the kindness and love of others that comes her way, particularly when the community and local businesses rally around Angela to help her finish and ship the initial stack of orders.

The real-life inspiration for the film can be found at

Mini-Review: Like all good desserts, Apple Mortgage Cake goes down easy. While doing so, it spins an inspirational (true!) story about overcoming life’s obstacles. It’s also a reminder that while pulling one’s self by one’s own bootstraps is a virtue, no one succeeds entirely on their own.  Some combination of friends, family and the kindness strangers is part the recipe for anyone’s success. Mixed in with that nice life lesson is a touch of humor and a pinch of romance. In short, Apple Mortgage Cake has all the ingredients of fine UPlifting Entertainment. Recommended.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered arrive on Hallmark Channel at 8:00 PM (ET).

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Series Synopsis (from The Hallmark Channel website): The new original series “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is a wonderful combination of romance, comedy and drama that follows the lives of four postal detectives who transform themselves into a team of detectives to track down intended recipients of undeliverable mail. Their missions take them out of the office and into an unpredictable world where redirected letters and packages can save lives, solve crimes, reunite old loves and change futures by arriving late but somehow always on time. The team includes charming Oliver O’Toole (Eric Mabius), a genius postal detective and the group’s leader; new team member, Shane McInerney (Kristin Booth), a technophile who brings 21st century sensibility to the group; free-spirited, “girl next door” Rita Haywith (Crystal Lowe) who has a photographic memory; and lovable Norman Dorman (Geoff Gustafson), a master in conventional research methods.

Mini-Review: Tonight’s series opener features Valerie Harper as a legendary postal supervisor who is evaluating the team of postal detective as they unravel a dangerous mystery involving a letter from a young boy to his grandmother.

As I wrote when reviewing the series two-hour movie pilot last October, the show seems “ironically subversive in this era of dark and cynical television.  Oliver, the leader of the team, winningly played by Eric Mabius (Ugly Betty), belies the idea (too often taken as a truism in Hollywood) that only snarky, cynical heroes can be interesting. The dignified and quietly compassionate Oliver is the polar opposite of both adjectives yet he’s as interesting as hell heaven.  Somehow simultaneously suave and what some would consider nerdy, he is a man of deep integrity who carries within himself a deep wound from his past. But where recent TV protagonists (i.e. House) have channeled their inner hurt through sharp-edged putdowns and general amoral unpleasantness, Oliver deals with his pain by throwing himself into his work and struggling to do the right thing. He’s all about following rules — like never reading more of a letter than is absolutely necessary to ascertain its proper destination — but it’s clear as an envelope window that he cares about the people involved.  The bottom line is you can’t help but like the guy.”

I’m happy to report that that all that still applies — though it does seem to me that that rule about not reading any more of a letter than is absolutely necessary has fallen by the wayside. That minor quibble aside, as a weekly series Signed, Sealed, Delivered delivers on the promise of its pilot with the regular cast gelling into a cohesive and appealing ensemble.

Next week’s edition, which was also made available for preview, deals with the aftermath of a soldier’s tour in Afghanistan — demonstrating that like Martha Williamson’s CBS hit Touched by an Angel, this show has the ability to shift tones from week to week while also occasionally taking on some contemporary issues.

Valerie Harper, whose character’s story arc continues into next week, follows Daphne Zuniga (from the pilot) in the role of a postal supervisor overseeing the team as they handle their cases of the week. The idea, as I understand it, is to feature various well-known TV stars in that position. Upcoming episodes will reportedly tap the talents of Della Reese, Valerie Bertinelli, Marilu Henner, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett. That’s certainly an impressive list and, no doubt, Martha Williamson has the clout to attract many other stars who are attracted to her brand of television.

While the idea has certainly worked so far, I can’t help but wonder whether the show might, in the long run, be better served by utilizing its guest star power on the sending or receiving end of the letters at the center of the episodes. Conversely, my gut feeling is that having a regular supervisor would provide more consistency and ongoing tension (if the supervisor, say, wanted to see the Dead Letter office closed).

In any event, Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a sure-footed drama with a unique premise, great characters and fascinating story possibilities. Touched by an Angel ran for nine seasons on CBS. I think it’s quite possible that this charming show can match or, perhaps even, exceed that. BTW, word is that CBS passed on this series. Their loss, IMHO, is Hallmark’s gain. Highly Recommended.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

This Easter weekend, Roma Downey wants you to know that “Son of God” is still in theaters and still changing lives

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Son of God lives. Faith audiences certainly have option at the box office this weekend — with Randall Wallace’s genuinely sweet slice-of-life (and afterlife) Heaven is for Real joining Darren Aronofsky’s strange take on Noah, and the Pure Flix sleeper his God’s Not Dead.  But Roma Downey called in to ask me to remind you that there is a fourth option. Son of God, the hit film that grew out of the success of The Bible miniseries she produced with husband Mark Burnett, is still in theaters and, as she says, changing lives. It certainly does seem an appropriate choice — particularly on Easter Sunday.

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JWK: So, Son of God came out in theater on February 28th and is still playing. I guess that’s what they call legs.

ROMA DOWNEY: It is still in theaters and it’s been doing phenomenally well. We’ve been so encouraged and so excited. And here we are (in) Holy Week and Easter, we’re just so glad it’s still in theaters giving families an opportunity to come together…to see it.

JWK: And the soundtrack album also continues to do well.

RD: Yeah, the soundtrack album is absolutely gorgeous!  I have mine in my car and it plays like a prayer. We took some of the scenes from the film and integrated it in there with the soundtrack (along with) some beautiful Scripture and prayers. And then on there we have some remixes which are just stunning — from CeeLo Green, One Republic, The Fray, Hillsong and so many more. You know, it released into the top five. It’s beautiful. It’s an emotive experience to listen to the soundtrack. You hear that in the film. Hans Zimmer is one of the great film composers of all time. To have had him on this project from the beginning has been just a blessing.

JWK: And, as you told me in our prior conversation, you’ve heard from people who have seen the film and say it has affected their lives in very positive ways.

RD: I think that’s been the real success of it. You know, we can add up in numbers how people who we believe saw the TV series – at least 100 million in America alone and the millions more around the globe. We can tell, at this point, that many, many millions have seen Son of God here in the states and we anticipate many, many millions more by the time it open around the globe. But there’s something very abstract in that, I think. It’s only as the personal stories start coming in — when we hear of the individual lives that have been touched (and) transformed by the film that we really begin to understand the scope, the breadth and the real success of this project — because you know lives are being changed.

We had one mother who reached out to us. She had a 17-year-old boy who was in a very dark stage of his adolescence. She felt that he was sullen, he was angry and he certainly had stopped going to church. Every time she would invite him to go with her, it ended up in an argument. But she asked him to go see Son of God with her. It was a reasonable ask, to go to the movies — and an invitation that he accepted. She said somewhere around the Crucifixion sequence he started to cry quiet tears that became bigger. It opened his heart and we know that when hearts are opened grace can move in. She shared that he cried all the way home and that something really shifted inside of him. He really understood what Jesus had done for him personally, how loves he was, how worthy that made him feel. The next morning when she went down to get in her car to go to church, he was sitting in the car waiting for her. That’s one story of many stories that are just extraordinary feedback for us as filmmakers — to hear this kind of beautiful testimonial.

We also heard from a 100-year-old lady who had been born in El Salvador and now lives in Los Angeles who has never been to the movies in her whole life. The first — and only — movie she went to see was Son of God. She went with her family and was incredibly moved by the experience. She loved the movie. She wept during the Passion scene and the Crucifixion, of course. Afterward, she said she would recommend the film. Of course, that got our attention…We felt so privileged that if she was only going to see one movie that she saw our movie…

…She was a Christian but had never seen a film on the big screen. I think, even for Christians and for believers going to this film, something extraordinary happens when you see it played out on the big screen. It’s larger than life. It serves as a stand-along, larger-than-life experience. When you see what He went through for us, I think there is something so humbling in this that just is moving people.

So, we’re hearing of people haven’t known Jesus (and) are falling in love with him for the first time through the movie. But I think we’re hearing more stories from (Christians) who were in a sort of complacent place (and were) taking it for granted. It’s helped to…reawaken (something inside them and) they’ve falling in love with Jesus all over again and (they are) now are going back to Scripture, going back to church with a new aliveness because, you know, if you consider, John, all from the beginning of time — though religious art, stained-glass windows, through all the many ways we…have tried to create imagery for our sacred text — we’ve tried to find ways to paint pictures to explain the Gospel to the masses.

This in 2014 so the natural way to allow people to re-experience the Gospel is through film. It’s not instead of, it’s as well as. Think of it as invitation. Think of it as an introduction — and you go back to church and you go back to Scripture with a new aliveness because you’ve seen it. You know, we’re such a visual age (that it helps) to see it played out. And Diogo Morgado’s performance as Jesus is just beautiful. He brings the absolutely perfect combination of qualities…He has strength and yet he has gentleness.

JWK: What’s your reaction when you hear Diogo Morgado referred to in the media as the “sexy” Jesus?

RD: I think that he certainly is a good-looking guy and I think that people responded to that. But he is beautiful inside and I think that’s what comes across the screen. There’s a kindness and a compassion to him. My experience with good-looking actors is that normally they know they’re good looking and there’s a little bit of a swagger in how they present themselves. When I first met Diogo Morgado, he had none of that swagger. He has none of that narcissism that we might associate with the very good looking. He’s a naturally very humble and kind man and his portrayal of Jesus — at the center of Son of God — is deeply touching.

JWK: I understand you arranged to have a group of about 250 people to see the movie for free in Los Angeles.

RD: Yes, we did. We had a group of low-income families bussed into the Pacific Theater in Glendale. Dinner was provided (along with) a screening of Son of God. After the movie, a short Gospel message an invocation were given and one-fifth of the audience that afternoon stepped forward and dedicated their lives to Jesus. S0, (it’s) extraordinary how the movie is being used.

RD: Pastor Rick Warren, who is a dear friend of ours, has always joked with us that the most dangerous prayer you can pray is “Use me.”

I know that all through my years on Touched by an Angel — which lasted almost ten years and, at its height, reached 20-million people a week — there was always a central scene (we called) the Angel revelation scene. In this scene — having been an undercover angel though the whole episode — I would now reveal who I was…an angel sent by God with a message. The message always contained the hope and the promise that there is a God and God loves you and wants to be part of your life. It was such a privilege for me, John, to be the messenger — as a believer.

In the years after Touched by an Angel, remained “Use me.: What is it that I can do to combine what I love to do — which is making films — with what I believe and love — which is God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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