Friday, May 27, 2005

Trinity News: You Can Find Redemption in a Bottle, After All

Click here: Trinity News: You Can Find Redemption in a Bottle, After All

You Can Find Redemption in a Bottle, After All

The author, a Trinity Fellow for Social Transformation, embarks on a quest for the public�s unclaimed nickels. Tying theology to the practical economy of bottle redemption, he finds one way to secure healthcare benefits for an underserved, hard-working population.

By the Rev. Dr. Earl Kooperkamp

The Rev. Dr. Earl Kooperkamp

Last winter, Charles Kelly was hit by a car in New York City. He wasn�t badly injured. What really hurt was that Charles, by no means a wealthy man, couldn�t work for three days afterward. And because he had no health insurance, Charles couldn�t seek medical treatment.

Flash back 10 years. I was in a local supermarket. Men and women were feeding bottles and cans into shiny new machines. These machines were there for the redemption of the nickel deposit on beer and soda containers as proscribed by New York�s �Bottle Bill.� The sign over this area read �Automatic Redemption Center.� My first thought was, �Hey, that�s my line of work. I�m being put out of a job!� I enjoyed my pun, but then I scarcely gave the issue another thought.

What do these scenes have to do with each other? On one level, there�s only a surface link: Charles, as you may have guessed, redeems bottles for a living. Like the people who were getting �Automatic Redemption,� he gets a nickel a bottle. He is one of New York City�s thousands who lug impossibly rotund, bulging sacks of cans and bottles through parks and alleys, streets and subways, to the city�s redemption centers. But there is a deeper connection: the balm for Charles�s injuries might lie with the cans he and his colleagues do not find.

More Information
Dr. Kooperkamp was part of the first class of Trinity Fellows for Social Transformation.

Bottle-Bill Website:

Health Insurace Issues:

Let me explain.

Redemption Two Ways
As a priest, it�s turned out that I have an abiding interest in two kinds of redemption � the kind you get when you turn in bottles for a nickel � and in Redemption � the holy, heavenly kind. When I was ordained, I knew I�d be knee-deep in the latter. The other kind of redemption was surprising.

A few years later, after becoming the pastor of St. Mary�s Church in West Harlem, I found that God was trying to get my attention on the importance of the issue of bottle redemption. Noticing the �Redemption Center� and having a chuckle to myself was the first sign, if you will, of many. At St. Mary�s, God became insistent.

We have several members who collect bottles and cans for redemption in our congregation. These members sing in the choir, volunteer at the soup kitchen, and others come as guests for a meal. One day I had a long talk with one of our members who works hard day in and day out collecting cans. Charles Kelly explained to me in great detail the work he did, the long hours he spends out on the streets, the all-sorts-of weather he works through.

The Quest for the Unclaimed Nickels
I asked Charles what he needs, what would make this work easier, and he replied that his is hard, sometimes dangerous, outdoor work, and that some form of health insurance would be great.

My first reaction, knowing the high and increasing cost of even our parish health insurance policy, was that Charles was asking the impossible. Well, impossible, perhaps for me, but as the Gospel says, �for God all things are possible� (Mark 10:27). The Spirit struck and I said, �But wait, what about all the unclaimed cans?� And Charles replied, �Yeah, where do all those nickels go?� This sent us on a quest for the unclaimed nickels.

One of the first stops on this search was WE CAN, a redemption center set up by Guy Polhemus, a former volunteer at the St. Francis Soup Kitchen. As Guy was serving people at the Soup Kitchen he heard their stories of the difficulties getting the nickels for the bottles and cans: store owners who keep people waiting for hours even in freezing weather; store owners who refuse to redeem more than a few dozen items when the law states they must redeem up to 240; and �middlemen� who redeem at a �twofer� rate � two cans for a nickel. Guy established his non-profit redemption center as a place open long hours, paying the full nickel for as many items as are brought in, and providing social services as needed.

Through this work, Guy became a veritable encyclopedia of the working conditions for �Redeemers� (as he calls the women and men who collect empty bottles and cans) and the process of bottle redemption in New York. Guy knew something important � the key to the quest: he knew that the deposit for unredeemed material stayed with the �deposit initiator,� that is to say, the bottling companies. Even though this was the public�s money, the bottlers are allowed to keep it for themselves. And this violates one of Guy�s fundamental understandings about this business. �Redemption,� he says, �is for everyone.�

The quest for the unredeemed nickels was proving good theology.

The Unclaimed Money is Your Money
A little more research uncovered that over the past twenty years since the inception of New York�s Bottle Bill, an estimated $1.4 billion in deposits remains unclaimed and in the hands of the bottlers. This is a conservative estimate and, as there is no provision in the law for the bottling companies to open their books for public inspection, the actual amount could be much higher. This money � the public�s money � could be used for public benefits � education, environmental clean-up, and healthcare for redeemers. Last winter, when Charles was unable to work and unable to seek treatment, the bottlers still continued to make money without lifting a finger, from the unclaimed deposits.

Good Old-Fashioned Theology
Redemption is more than simply a matter of fairness. It is an aspect of our faith that calls for our theological reflection and understanding. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a provision for gleaning the fields and the vineyards. The people of Israel are enjoined in the Torah to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, to leave the gleanings, and to leave some grapes on the vines. These are for the poor and the alien in the land, because the land belongs to God and God will provide for all out of God�s very abundance. Ruth, King David�s grandmother, and her mother-in-law, Naomi, are sustained by the gleanings of Boaz�s field.

Our society has been characterized as a disposable society. We throw things away with abandon and we value the convenience of throw-away containers more than good stewardship of valuable resources. The redeemers among us teach us a different way. They are proof that what we all too often consider worthless is actually valuable. Those nickels add up, one bottle or can at a time, and sustain a life. And if we look at Jesus� life and passion through this lens, we see him literally tossed out, crucified on the town garbage heap as worthless. But he pays the price, so much infinitely greater than five cents, for our Redemption. When we proclaim, �Jesus, our Redeemer� here at St. Mary�s Church now, these words have a much richer and deeper content for me.

We will keep working for redemption at St. Mary�s. We have helped to start a coalition for a new bottle bill in New York. This new law will expand redemption provisions to non-carbonated beverage containers. No one knew twenty years ago when the first bottle bill was introduced that you could put water in a bottle and sell it, but this is now the largest and growing sector of the market. The new law will also call for putting the public�s money in the form of unclaimed deposits into public use. Maybe someday soon Charles Kelly�s dream of some health coverage as a reward for his hard work will become a reality.

After all, �Redemption is for everyone.�

Posted on Trinity News, May 27, 2005

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