Viva House soup kitchen has provided 45 years of service

In a quiet block in Southwest Baltimore, a warm wind blows plastic bags along a sidewalk.

Boarded-up rowhomes line the streets. A pile of mattresses rests on a trash heap in someone's former backyard. A lonely placard reads, "Stop shooting – start living."

The images reflect the lost optimism of a neighborhood that lost more than 40,000 residents between 1980 and 2010.

But a few yards down a side alley, there's a place with a different feel.

Scores of locals sit chatting in a tree-shaded garden, their conversation mingling with the tinkle of wind chimes. A maitre-d' greets several at a time, leading them to their seats inside. And for the next two hours, one of Baltimore's best-loved eateries is filled to capacity, serving piles of fresh chicken salad along with hearty sides of human dignity.

Welcome to lunch at Viva House, a soup kitchen not far from Union Square that has thrived against a backdrop of urban change since the Vietnam War, all by hewing to a basic principle: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

"I don't like to quote Scripture much, but … didn't Jesus say, 'When you saw someone who was thirsty and didn't offer a drink of water, you also did that to me?'" asks former seminarian Brendan Walsh, the peace activist who co-founded the place — a Catholic Worker house — with his wife, former nun Willa Bickham, 45 years ago this year.

Walsh, 70, stands at the door in his apron, matter-of-factly admitting guests as they hand him numbered tickets. Bickham, also 70, guides 12 lively volunteers as they chop, cook and carry trays.

The team will serve 170 guests, adding to a total that surpassed one million in 2004, the year they stopped counting.

Apparently, the simple things add up.

"If somebody's hungry, you give them a sandwich," Walsh says. "Doesn't everybody do that?"

The movement

Begin your walk in Union Square, where H.L. Mencken lived and wrote, head west along Lombard Streeet and right onto South Mount, and in an otherwise litter-strewn block you'll spot a rowhome with a blue-and-white sign in the window: WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER.

This is Viva House, where Walsh and Bickham have lived and fed their fellow Baltimoreans, quietly and mostly at their own expense, as the neighborhood declined around them.

As the staff prepares in the kitchen, the guests begin to arrive — Tommy Carter, a resident of the Code Blue shelter downtown, Madeline Moore, a neighbor who says "sometimes I don't have food to eat," a middle-aged deaf woman named Marguerita.

Walsh, Bickham and volunteers greet them by name and ask how they're doing. A convivial atmosphere develops as the guests relax in the courtyard out back.

"The food here's always delicious," says Keith King, a neighbor who has dined here for eight years, "but the hospitality is wonderful. It's just like family here."

If Viva House seems serene today, it started out with a bang.

Walsh and Bickham grew up as mainstream Catholics but came of age during the Vietnam War, when some high-profile members of the faith objected to the church's decision not to oppose U.S. involvement in Indochina.

Walsh, who was studying at a New York seminary under the pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan, quit school a year before being ordained. Bickham, a Chicago-based Sister of St. Joseph, left her convent in 1964 when a pastor forbade her to work with African-Americans.

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."

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."

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