And indeed, at a recent Wednesday lunch, there's no discernible stress. Long-term volunteers Mike Chavonec, a retired federal worker; Peter Naughton, an Irish-born neighbor who happens to be a recovering alcoholic, and Joan Muth, an 88-year-old retiree from Timonium, keep the process moving briskly, serving each guest with dignity and humor and wrapping up by 2:30.

The gift

If the proprietors seem rarely to tire, it's partly because they have volunteers they love and trust — "without them, this doesn't work," Bickham says — partly because they don't see what they do as work.

"We're not doing charity," Walsh says as he wipes his hands on his apron. "We're giving back to people what was stolen from them. Everyone has a right to clothing, food and shelter. They're not the ones who closed Bethlehem Steel."

They still go for walks every day, taking in the morning's rhythms, and both say that as deep as the squalor grows, God's grace is still there to see. It's in the old woman on the bench who gives out sandwiches so people will stop and talk, in the homeless man who stopped by one day, gave a piano concert and left; in the thank-yous and nameless gifts people slide under the front door.

Take the woman who left them money upon her death last March.

They hadn't seen her in ages, not since she and her husband were married at Viva House in the 1960s. She moved to New York, kept in touch by mail, and never returned to the house on South Mount.

Her bequest came to half a million dollars.

Bickham and Walsh waited for the check to clear, then started writing checks of their own. They gave every penny to other Catholic Worker houses in the United States.

After all this time, didn't they at least consider keeping a little bit, maybe taking a vacation?

Walsh gives a puzzled look.

"Where are we going to go?" he says. "There's no place better than here."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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