Walsh moved to Baltimore to join the antiwar movement. Bickham did the same to work with the poor. They met a few months later and married in 1967.

They found themselves drawn to the Catholic Worker, a movement co-founded in New York in the 1930s by the activist Dorothy Day. Members spurned religious dogma in favor of helping the poor directly. They deemed nonviolence an essential Christian tenet.

Following Day's example, Catholic Workers across the country opened houses of hospitality, places that fed and welcomed the poor.

In 1968, Bickham and Walsh paid $1,000 for the place on South Mount, moved in and created the soup kitchen they still run.

At the time, they took in boarders, too, and they didn't avoid controversy. They were friends with members of the Catonsville Nine, the group of antiwar protesters — including Berrigan and his brother, Philip — who used homemade napalm to torch 378 draft files outside the Catonsville Draft Board on May 17, 1968.

The protest made international headlines. Bickham and Walsh, who had helped mix the napalm the night before, put the defendants up as they awaited trial. They were Viva House's first guests.

(Philip Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, would settle in West Baltimore, where they founded Jonah House, which remains an active community of poverty workers and peace activists.)

The method

Walsh and Bickham still attend and organize demonstrations on behalf of unions, the imprisoned and the poor — and against all forms of violence.

But as other protesters gained worldwide notoriety, they set forth on a quieter path. They got to know the neighborhood — a place that lacked great wealth, but where jobs were plentiful.

Walking the streets each morning, they saw men and women leaving for work at Bethlehem Steel, Maryland Cup, Montgomery Ward and more. The 60 or so regulars at the soup kitchen were mostly older men, disabled or drug-addicted.

Over the decades, as the city shuttered public housing and the businesses closed or moved away, the four-square-mile area around Viva House hemhorraged homeowners, saw a massive increase in narcotic use, and became just the sort of neighborhood made famous on "The Wire," with open-air drug markets, poverty and violent crime.

Walsh and Bickham had cars stolen and vandalized, but they've never considered moving.

"Yes, there are a few difficult people who use drugs," Bickham says, "but the vast majority are lovely people. We go for walks every morning and see grace: people picking up cigarette butts, people collecting cans, people who are very lonely and very kind."

"The church canonizes people, and that's fine, but there are saints in the streets of Baltimore," Walsh adds.

Through trial and error, they worked up a method of service. Bickham, a trained nurse, and Walsh, a teacher, took turns working full-time jobs. They developed a network of trusty volunteers, accepted small donations and found themselves easily covering annual expenses of roughly $50,000.

Over 17 years, they sheltered about 3,500 men, women and children overnight, but they stopped doing that in 1987 when the spread of crack cocaine made it too risky. They focused on food instead, serving lunches on Wednesdays and Thursdays and distributing hefty bags of donated food once a month.

As Southwest Baltimore has declined, Viva House has grown. Today the soup kitchen greets as many as a thousand people a week. The lines sometimes curl out the door and down the street, but the team has evolved its method to match.

The Baltimore novelist Laura Lippman volunteered at Viva House for eight years.

Walsh and Bickham "endure because they work hard," she says. "It's one of the most efficient operations you'll find anywhere. Everything has been carefully thought out down to the tiniest detail."