They are traveling cross-country by buses and minivans and even by foot, small bands of Americans whose lives have been hurt by HIV or AIDS and who believe that coming to Washington by the most grass-roots means possible will refocus attention on the toll the disease continues to take.
When their caravans converge here late this week, the destination will not be the Mall, where so many causes are celebrated and their import often is measured by the size of the crowd. Instead, the Campaign to End AIDS and its "4 Days of Action" will be in a park in Anacostia, a testament to the virus's increasing devastation in the black community.
Nowhere in the United States is that more pronounced than in Washington, which suffers a far higher incidence of AIDS -- 170.6 cases per 100,000 people, according to federal statistics -- than New York, San Francisco or Philadelphia. Nearly 85 percent of new diagnoses in the District in 2003 were made in African Americans, with women a growing subset.
"This is to show that people care about the epidemic, that it's not over, that they have a voice," said Marsha Martin, head of the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration, who supports the unusual mobilization.
Organizers say the campaign was borne of frustration over the country's "stalled response" to AIDS and a widespread public assumption that, because of recent drugs that increase longevity, the virus is no longer a critical public health issue. The caravans were to have been on the move in September, but Hurricane Katrina forced delays that led to scaled-back plans and, probably, to lost support and attention.
The remaining nine groups started this month from Portland, Ore., and Seattle, from a trio of cities in California, from Brownsville, Tex., and Burlington, Vt., Key West, Fla., and Times Square in Manhattan -- the latter, the walking caravan, kicking off with a march through the Lincoln Tunnel. Participants have relied on the kindnesses of churches, YMCAs, recreation centers and strangers for their food and shelter. Only rarely, they say, have they encountered hostility.
"We believe in the decency of people," Lowen Berman said Thursday outside an bank in Iowa City, where he and 13 other people had stopped for the night. Along the way from Portland, they had been greeted by the governor's wife in Boise, Idaho, were driven to Wyoming to meet student activists in Laramie and AIDS advocates in Cheyenne and had spoken at a poetry reading in Omaha. Nearly everyone in the contingent, which is adding members on its journey, has HIV or AIDS.
"The problem is a lack of understanding" for how the disease affects communities, "the lack of a face" with which others can identify, said Berman, who heads an HIV program for the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. "The goal is to bring the issue to where the folks are who ultimately have political power in the country" -- meaning, he hopes, everyday Americans of every persuasion.
The campaign, organized in part by the Silver Spring-based National Association of People With AIDS, wants them to demand full funding for treatment and support services for those living with HIV and AIDS. It also seeks greater prevention efforts, increased research funding toward a cure and a fight against stigmatizing those infected and toward protecting their civil rights.
In Southeast Washington yesterday morning, that message was taken up from the pulpit of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. "God's people are dying," thundered the Rev. Kendrick Curry, who devoted nearly all of his hour-plus sermon to AIDS, invoking Scripture and statistics with equal ease.
"It's something we are silent about in many of our churches," he told worshipers. "But beloved, it's close to home, and it's here right now. . . . It's time [for] the community to get up and rise up and do something. These are our brothers and sisters."
Curry's exhortation was a welcome prelude to this weekend, when the campaign's riders and walkers will gather Saturday in Anacostia Park and attend an interfaith prayer service the next day at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington and then rally in Meridian Hill Park -- also known as Malcolm X Park -- and Lafayette Square. Metropolitan's minister, the Rev. Ronald Braxton, echoes Curry in saying that few churches, especially African American ones, have shown enough leadership on the issue.
"We had no choice but to participate," he said of his congregation.
Before the caravaners disperse, they also will visit the halls of Congress to press their points with their respective lawmakers. But that's still more than a week -- and hundreds of miles -- away.
Exactly how many, Valerie Jimenez wasn't sure of yesterday afternoon, although the several dozen New York marchers, as young as their early twenties, as old as 71, had made it far enough south to be in Baltimore County. "Today's a short day. It's only 11 miles," she said, laughing during a bathroom break along Route 40.
Jimenez is a seasoned activist and HIV patient, having contracted the virus in the late 1980s from her first husband. She said she signed up for the campaign because she believed it was "time to wake people up." Based on the reaction she and her group have received, to fliers passed out at traffic lights, to condoms distributed at fast-food restaurants, the caravans already have succeeded.
"Wherever we went, through towns or cities along the way, it was amazing," she said.
Two days ago, a woman named Evelyn called Jimenez on her cell phone to check when the group would cross into Maryland. She wanted to have something waiting. And, sure enough, Evelyn was there yesterday on a stretch of highway, with hot chili and cornbread, a tuna casserole and a big smile.
The New Yorkers ate lunch in style.