A Theological Reading of “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts”: Coke bottles

Toward the end of Neil White’s gripping memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts”, he records another encounter with Ella.

With his release looming, White was lamenting to Ella his lack of transformation. He writes, “I had decided I needed to change, but I was still the same man who walked through the gates a year earlier.” Rather than experiencing the deep-level reform he had anticipated, White felt largely unchanged and looked to Ella for words of wisdom.

“Hard on yourself,” she said, after I told her my apprehension.

I shook my head. “Everybody says I need to become a new person before I get out.”

“You is what you is.” Ella took a deep breath and looked across the inmate courtyard. “You know ’bout them drink bottles?” she asked.

“No.”

Ella proceeded to tell White a story. Years earlier, the Coca-Cola distributor from Baton Rouge would send only chipped and cracked Coke bottles to Carville. The reason? So he wouldn’t have to accept the return bottles. The distributor feared the public backlash if customers discovered their glass Coke bottles had once touched the lips of leprosy patients.

Thus, Carville accumulated a massive collection of cracked and chipped Coke bottles.

“More drink bottles than you ever seen,” she said. The crates of bottles filled closets and storerooms. But the patients discovered new uses for the nonreturnable bottles. They used them as flower vases with beautiful arrangements. They became sugar dispensers in the cafeteria. For impromptu bowling games on the lawn, the bottles were used as pins. They were turned upside down and stuffed into the dirt to line flower beds and walks on the Carville grounds.

“CoCola bottle still a CoCola bottle,” Ella said. “Just found ’em a new purpose.”

The church is this collection of cracked and chipped bottles, repurposed for the sake of the Kingdom.

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