This piece opens the Washington, D.C. insallment of the “Advocating on the Road” series.

This month the “Advocating on the Road” series stops in the District of Columbia, where we look at Washington, D.C., not solely as the nation’s capital, but as a community in which more than 600,000 people build their lives.

More than a patch of land holding majestic monuments and palatial museums, Washington, D.C., is a real community with real people facing real problems. One does not have to travel far from the grand symbols of our Republic and the recognized centers of power to see the effects of disease, poverty and crime here. This “real” D.C. faces many challenges, among them being the rampant spread and heartbreakingly high rates of HIV and AIDS within the District. In fact, health official and activists have labeled Washington, D.C., as an epicenter of HIV and AIDS in the United States.

Last month, the D.C. Department of Health released the 2011 annual report on HIV and AIDS in the District. Although there was progress made in providing access to care and improving long-term health outcomes, HIV and AIDS remains a grave problems for D.C. residents and the mayor’s administration. The report found that 2.7 percent of D.C. residents (nearly 14,500 people) are living with HIV — a percentage that exceeds the World Health Organization’s definition of 1 percent as a generalized epidemic. While all racial/ethnic groups in the District exceed the 1 percent rate of infection, Washington’s African American population is disproportionately impacted — 4.3 percent of African Americans in D.C. are HIV positive. The report also found that men having sex with men and heterosexual contact are the two leading transmission modes of new HIV cases in D.C.

In the face of this health crisis, Lutherans in Washington, D.C., are actively responding with compassion. ELCA members and congregations (some of whom we will hear from in this month’s blog series) work to serve and welcome their neighbors living with HIV. On National HIV Testing Day in June 2010, several ELCA congregations were joined by area Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches in a campaign called, “God’s People Are Tested” in which adults and youth learned about the epidemic and were tested.

Participation in these types of events is important, explains Karin Klingman, a member of Washington’s Christ Lutheran Church, because it reduces the damaging stigma associated with HIV. “When being tested, people have to learn about the disease, opening them up to more compassion with those coping with HIV. Testing helps normalize discussion about AIDS.”

Through similar testing events, participation in the International AIDS Conference later this month, advocating for better services for those living with HIV, and welcoming all people into their congregations, ELCA members in the District are sharing Christ’s love in their communities. Seeing the person and not the disease, not judging their past but acknowledging their dignity and individuality, these Lutherans are working to restore and reconcile communities in Christ’s name throughout Washington, D.C.

Keep an eye on the “Advocating on the Road” blog series throughout the next few days — we will hear more from Karin Klingman and other Lutherans on HIV and AIDS in Washington, D.C.