The Work of Redemption

Column for Joan Hershberger – drafted by Mert Hershberger on the Lord’s Day, January 3, 2021

When I came to Michigan, I thought the only redemptive work that I would be involved in was preaching the good news of Jesus. However, I soon learned that there are other opportunities for redemptive work. Michigan has very generous redemption values that it places on canned and bottled beverages. Most soda and alcoholic beverage containers have a redemption value of ten cents. That is much higher than the value on the aluminum or plastic alone, so many folks here collect bottles and cans to make ends meet. In fact, it is against the law to throw away redeemable containers in Michigan.

During the severest part of the COVID shutdowns here in Michigan, the stores were not allowing any bottle returns, so I found a lot of extra cans and bottles just laying around in people’s recycling bins. I started to collect them for a couple months and ended up redeeming well over $100 worth over several weeks once the COVID shutdowns ended and stores again allowed customers to redeem bottles. This extra money helped me buy groceries for people to whom I delivered in order to help them make ends meet. I continued to collect cans and bottles in the months following the reopening and kept buying groceries and toilet paper for a handful of people, on an as needed basis.

Once, I was at a bus stop and picked a few cans and bottles out of the trash. A fellow who regularly hangs out at the bus stop and solicits small donations from any willing soul tried to stop me. He said, “You should get a real job. Stop begging for money! You are dirty!” I turned around and talked to him, “Well, I’m not asking anyone for money. I’m on a redemptive mission. These bottles have value, so I plan to redeem them. It’s a crime to throw away what can be redeemed. You can be redeemed too, and you wouldn’t want anyone to throw you away, right?” After that, he lightened his tone and was more friendly again.

On Thanksgiving while my lovely wife fixed a delicious meal for the two of us, I got bored, so I wandered over to a nearby university campus. When I started to find redeemables, I decided to collect them while I was on the phone with my Mom. I ended up scouring half of the campus and collecting bottles and cans worth about $2.50. It’s not often I get paid to talk on the phone!

On New Year’s Day, I again was bored and again went over to the nearby University campus. Again, I made a call to someone and again I picked up $2 to $3 worth of redeemables from the other half of campus. Nobody had picked up any trash since Thanksgiving and the University was basically closed since then due to a rise in COVID cases locally in December. And nobody had gotten any of the cans or bottles since then, so I decided it was high time somebody rescue what could be redeemed.

There is a neighbor who regularly drinks tall beers and discards cans and some Coke bottles too, so I’ll pick up the cans, empty out the remaining beer onto the ground, and take a couple dollars’ worth of bottles and cans home from there every week or two. Sometimes he has even given me whole bags filled with redeemables. Once, he was moved with compassion and gave me a couple $2 bills as well. All I have to do is stop a little off my regular route, sort through the recycling, and rescue what would otherwise go in the garbage.

These cans are such a hot commodity that people will sometimes post on Facebook that they are having some difficult economic times and ask if people will let them pick up cans from their homes. Most of the time, several people will post that cans are available, the person will put gas in their car or buy groceries, and that is the end of it. But recently, a woman who works for the same public service agency as I work for viciously berated a can collector for asking for the help. Because her comments were relayed to me via the agency Facebook page, I gently corrected her and suggested she use more discretion in her online interactions. The next day, when we were both in a webinar on sensitivity towards those who have suffered racial injustice, she was visibly shaken.

My mother taught me to redeem the time, to stretch my money, and that there are no throw-away people. The week of her birthday and anniversary, I will celebrate by redeeming a large bag of cans and bottles, then getting food and toilet paper for people that I serve. Thanks, Mom, for not letting me waste my life!

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