Westminster Presbyterian Church - Washington, D.C.
By Beth Outterson, PAN Leadership Team
Westminster Presbyterian Church is an urban church in Southwest Washington, D.C. Ruth and Brian Hamilton have been co pastors of this mid-sized congregation for more than 10 years. Why have an HIV/AIDS ministry? “Many of our primary members are personally affected and it became obvious that the stigma around HIV/AIDS was not attached at our church,” commented Ruth.
Westminster is one the first churches in the United States to sign the More Light statement in the early 80s. It has a legacy of serving people from all walks of life, including and engaging them in Christian witness and service. George Kerr, a deacon, is a leader in their HIV/AIDS related activities along with John DiNapoli, chair of the church’s non-profit CDC. During their weekly Jazz night, George sat down with me and explained all of the many ways that Westminster is responding to the overwhelming needs around HIV/AIDS in the local community.
George first pointed out how unique D.C. is in terms of the local epidemic. In most parts of the United States, people do not feel touched by HIV/AIDS because it only affects a very small percentage of the population (1 percent nationally). However, in the D.C. area, one out of 20 residents is infected with HIV. That is equivalent to five percent of the population. One out of 50 District residents is already living with AIDS. That means that if D.C. were a country, it would rank in between The Republic of Congo and Rwanda in terms of HIV infection rates! For this reason, George’s motto is “Local is global and global is local.” What is happening in Africa is happening here, he says. He feels it is unconscionable that D.C. residents, who are living in a country of plenty, are getting worse care than is available in less fortunate nations. Reasons include poverty, lack of attention to the issues and the fact that D.C. does not have federal representatives that can vote in the house or senate.
Early in the 1980s, Westminster and its community felt compelled to respond to these issues in some way. They established Food and Friends, a program that prepared meals in the church for distribution to homebound People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWAs). The program became so successful that it outgrew the church and now operates as its own Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). Since that time, Westminster has become engaged in other types of HIV/AIDS ministries.
George, who had not attended a church in many years, became interested in Westminster when he attended a planning meeting for the Campaign to end AIDS 4 Days of Action, Nov 5-8, 2005. He then helped the church serve meals for the caravan of folks who were traveling across the country, staying in D.C. The NGO, DC Fights Back was developed as a network of people living with HIV/AIDS and their allies working to engage their community in every aspect of HIV advocacy to ensure the best possible treatment and care for people living with HIV/AIDS as well as the best possible science-based HIV prevention.
Westminster’s activities are naturally woven into local HIV efforts of DC Fights Back and other groups. Westminster’s activities now include:
- Hosting regular “Speak Outs” with DC Fights Back, including discussion of HIV related topics.
- Hosting a fund-raiser comedy show for the local condom distribution project.
- Holding many events during Gay Pride week, with discussions on basic health and prevention, issues of stigma and the “Down Low.”
- Teaming with DC Fights Back to “bird dog,” or push the issue of HIV among local political candidates. They were also instrumental in writing the Mayor’s current HIV platform. They will be teaming up with the Global AIDS Alliance to train people to influence the agenda for presidential candidates as well. Issues they have promoted include additional providers for PLWAs and increasing needle exchange programs.
- Hosting a resource day geared to providing PLWAs with all of the information they need, with booths from various AIDS service organizations, even funeral homes and insurance companies.
- Leading World AIDS Day events with high profile speakers and a special memorial service that is always well attended by the community.
- Westminster is a satellite office for a drop-in center for active or recovering substance users to receive free individual and group counseling, support and referrals.
Westminster has built on its strong legacy of HIV ministry through its committed association with local and national NGOs to educate, provide services and advocate for better prevention, treatment and care regarding HIV/AIDS. Thanks to Ruth and Brian’s guidance, George and John’s leadership and the community’s openness, change is starting to happen, and in very impressive ways. Participation in programs is growing exponentially! Congratulations to Westminster for all the ways they are putting their faith into action.