In a space that has been flooded with negativity and scenes of war and violence, I find my Facebook newsfeed lit up with people from all walks of life engaging in this challenge. For those that may not be aware of how this works, you are invited to take the challenge by either donating $100 to ALS research or dumping a bucket of ice water over your head. Those with means seem to be doing both, even exceeding the minimum donation amount. However, despite millions of dollars raised for important research, there are critics of this challenge. They vary widely from diverting donations from the ALS Association because foetal stem cells are used in their research, a violation of Catholic Social Teaching, to objections to a display of privilege; watching those with means wasting precious resources to perform this challenge.
For me, I have been torn over this debate. I think today, more than ever, we are in desperate need of levity. More than that, we need to rebuild our sense of community and can do so while raising awareness about ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, an incurable, progressive degenerative neurological disorder. I think that this challenge has accomplished all of these goals. From former presidents to billionaires, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to professional sports stars (even teams), movie stars and musicians, to my neighbours, friends, and family members – there is something about this that ties everyone together – a common bond, if you will, forged by this challenge. Not to mention, over $90 million has been raised to support research so far, with a record breaking $10 million raised in one day alone. To put this in perspective, the annual average annual donations received by the ALS Association is usually around $2.1 million.
It is not only dumping ice water that helped to raise money for this organization. Charlie Sheen dumped $10,000 over his head instead of water and challenged other celebrities to do the same. Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst forewent the ice, eating ice cream instead, while asking others to donate double. Clinton Kelly asked fans to post videos to his Facebook page and he would donate $50 per picture up to $5,500.00.
Certainly, this has been an incredible banding together through social media. However, this has also become a platform to raise awareness about the ALS Association violating Catholic Social Teaching by using foetal stem cells in their research – an issue that seems to be raised mostly by clergy. Those who are engaging in the challenge, but wanting to adhere to Catholic teaching are redirecting their money to an organization that follows the tenants of the Church- the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa – “a secular organization that is grounded in a pro-life bioethic that respects the dignity of every human life.” However, the Church also calls us to be wise stewards and donating to this organization may not be the best cause of action. Essentially, the funding for ALS was not a stated focus of this organization before the ALS Challenge, but now, with the influx of money, this has become one of many research focuses. These redirected funds are essentially becoming “seed” money to start funding a program at this Institute and is taking money away from an established organization that solely and has only focused on ALS research.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has gone so far as to ban the schools in their Diocese from doing the challenge. When questioned, the USCCB called this a “local” issue and provided no additional comment. Maybe they know that the organization provides the ability to direct your donations away from research methods that use foetal stem cells and instead of making this another pro-life issue based solely on life in the womb, this has become a pro-life issue based on the concept of dignity of the whole human being from womb to tomb, which includes those suffering from this crippling disease for which no cure has been found. (For the record, those interested in doing their homework will find that the organization has stated that it uses mostly adult stem cells in their research and they have a one-donor research project (singular) that uses foetal cells.)
There are others that have used this challenge to raise awareness to other issues, while donating to the ALS Association. Actor, Orlando Jones, used empty shell casings instead of ice water in his bucket to raise awareness to Michael Brown and Ferguson by dumping a bucket of bullet shell-casings over his head. In an interview with BuzzFeed, he explains why he performed his challenge differently:
“For me, bullets represent those who have fought and died in the struggle for human rights, because civil rights are human rights and an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere, and I realized that I could no longer stay silent. But to be fair, where was my voice when those injustices happened in other parts of the world? I didn’t say anything because I was being apathetic, so my challenge was meant to bring attention to the disease of apathy — but gun violence is one of the symptoms. The support of a disproportionate death of young black men is one of the symptoms, but when we act like it’s just the way it is, we silently endorse those convictions and allow it to fester. Unlike ALS, our disease has a cure so long as we treat those symptoms. We know what the symptoms are; this disease has a cure. Treat the symptoms.”
Another platform seen is for the support of Gaza, using rubble instead of ice. According to an article in the World Post:
“Videos of the challenge aren’t meant to raise funds, but instead awareness of the living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza. The Facebook page for the challenge says Maysam Yusef, a university student in Gaza, started the campaign. It has gained traction in the last few days after Palestinian journalist Ayman al Aloul posted a video on YouTube of himself dumping a bucket of rubble over his head from what appears to be a blast site in Gaza.
In the video, he says in Arabic that a bucket of water would be hard to waste, since it would be enough water for one family to use for a day. He adds that even if water had been available, freezing it would have been difficult without electricity.”
There are more deviations, but the final one I want to discuss is Matt Damon’s challenge. His challenge acknowledges the shortage of drinking water in developing countries. In addition, we know from news reports that California is facing a severe drought. So Matt Damon, instead of using clean water, used toilet water in his bucket. While people may criticise Damon for supporting his charity (www.water.org), the fact of the matter is that his point is an important one. While supporting charity, we need to still find a way to be good stewards of our precious resources, including water.
While I have watched people adversely react to the challenge, complaining of the act and assuming there is no donation, I am struck that not everyone has access to either or both of these resources and that such critiques are made by people that who have not had to worry about either. Dare I say, voices of privilege? The critiques by the Church, while they raise an important point, should be more diligent about their advocacy work and stewardship. Using this as yet another platform to focus solely on pro-life as an issue in the womb is not enough. There needs to be a better way to use “teachable moments” like this by teaching a respect for life from womb to tomb, as well as, by taking the time to investigate the practices they deem a violation. Instead of directing funds away from ALS Association and providing seed money to the John Paul II Institute, a secular organization that promotes ethical research in-line with Catholic social teaching, the message could have been to donate to ALS Association and earmark the money to fund only projects involving adult stem cell research (or specifically diverting funds away from foetal cell research). This way, more funding is provided to an existent organization that has been and continues to focus their research on cures only for ALS. This is a better way to be stewards, which as stated before, is another mandate under Catholic Social Teaching.
Overall, I think the issue is to be good stewards of the resources that we have available to us and recognize that there are those who do not have access to these same resources. When doing the challenge, I challenge you to do so with water that is already used for something, whether bath water, water left over from cooking, washing, from ponds or rivers, or, like Matt Damon, even toilet water. I know that people may not have access to any type of water, even the used water I am proposing to use, or even afford to donate money, and that is okay. This should not preclude those without means from participating in the challenge. Participating in any way binds us together as a global community while still raising awareness about this disease.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele’s research interests involve feminism, gender, and sexuality influenced by religion with special emphasis on the Biblical text, religious syncretism, literary analysis, politics, and law. She is also interested in gendered violence, historical theology, and ecclesiology. Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.