At Your Service
Viva House Celebrates 40 Years of Service in Baltimore
Five in the morning is early to find yourself held up at gunpoint, even in Southwest Baltimore. But on a hot August Tuesday morning during his daily exercise walk, Brendan Walsh, co-founder of Viva House, a community dedicated to providing hospitality to those living on the margins of society, found himself staring down the barrel of a handgun held by a teenager. "`This is for real,'" Walsh says the young man told him.
Surprisingly, this was the first time the 65-year-old longtime Union Square resident had ever been held up. Fortunately, he was not injured. "I'm just getting some exercise," Walsh says he told his assailant, turning his pockets inside out to prove that he had no money. The would-be robber decided to let him go. "I don't know why he let me go--why I wasn't killed or badly beaten," Walsh says.
The ordeal has only served to reinforce Walsh's commitment to Viva House, which celebrated its 40th year of operation in this neighborhood Oct. 4. Walsh describes Viva's mission as performing "works of mercy and works of resistance" as part of the Catholic Worker movement, an effort founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day to advocate nonviolence, social equality, justice, and charity, based on teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic Worker communities are probably best known for running houses that offer food, shelter, clothing, and other services to those in need in inner-city neighborhoods.
Walsh and his wife, Willa Bickham, founded Viva House together in 1968. Neither is native to Baltimore--Walsh is from New York and Bickham is from Chicago--but they met in Baltimore, in 1967, at St. Peter Claver's Church in Upton. There they fell in love while working with the Interfaith Peace Mission draft resisters' movement. Walsh and Bickham married and spent their honeymoon traveling to different Catholic Worker houses throughout the country (there are 180 such communities located throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, and New Zealand), picking up ideas they could eventually use to start their own house in Baltimore, which they did when they returned to the city.
"Our first guests were the Catonsville Nine," says Bickham, referring to the nine Catholic men and women who stood trial in 1968 for entering a draft board office, removing hundreds of draft records, and destroying them with homemade napalm ("Hit and Stay," Feature, May 14). When some of the members of the Catonsville Nine and their visiting families needed a place to stay during the federal trial, Bickham and Walsh offered up their home.
Over the years, with the help of an ever-changing array of volunteers (including a number of City Paper staffers), Viva House has provided different services to residents of the city. In the past, Viva House has acted as a shelter for homeless women and children, operated a summer day camp and after-school program for kids, and run the Sowebo Center for Justice legal clinic. Members of Viva House have also been regular participants in a weekly vigil against the death penalty held in front of the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center. The programs run by the Viva community change as the cast of volunteers changes--a new member who joins may create a new program for the community, while the departure of another member might mean the end of another. The community is forever evolving; today, Viva House's primary activity is to serve as a soup kitchen and food pantry for hungry and homeless city residents.
Walsh and Bickham estimate that over 1 million people have shared meals at their soup kitchen and more than 55,000 families have visited their food pantry.
The soup kitchen was originally at a storefront located at 40 S. Carrollton Ave. near Hollins Market. It served food five days a week and was run by the residents of Viva House, who at the time consisted of Walsh, Bickham, and a group largely made up of draft resisters and anti-war activists. Today, the soup kitchen is the first floor of two merged rowhouses on Mount Street (the couple bought the house next door in the 1980s so they could expand Viva House) and contains a full kitchen and dining rooms that seat 34 people at a time. It is run by Walsh, Bickham, and a team of volunteers.
Walsh says that as the years have gone by, the soup kitchen's clientele has changed. Used to be that mostly older men with drinking or drug problems came to eat; today Viva House sees children and families. "It wasn't like it is now," he says. "It was mostly elderly men. Not families. Not women and children."
"And a really big day was 60 people," Bickham adds. "Oh, we thought we were really cooking for a lot of people then." These days, the kitchen operates on Wednesdays and Thursdays and typically serves more than 220 hot meals to people from all walks of life.
"You know, one quarter of the population lives below the poverty level," Walsh says. "And that hasn't changed since we started."
After the draft resisters moved out of Viva House in the mid-1970s, the community used the free space to create a shelter for homeless women and children. Beds were set up in every room, Walsh and Bickham say, and it resembled a small hotel; the workload was considerable.
The women and children's shelter was open for about five years, but due to an increasing demand for feeding programs, Viva House changed focus.
"More and more people were coming for food," Walsh says. "So we decided to just concentrate on the soup kitchen."
Walsh and Bickham say they could never have made Viva House what it is without the work of the volunteers and residents who have spent time there. The community, they say, has always relied on the people living there to help it grow and change. For example, their daughter, Kate Walsh-Little, was an active member of Viva House when she lived there: She ran a children's playgroup, summer camp, and after-school program out of the house from 1998 to 2003.
"I really got to meet so many different kinds of people, and I think that's helped me as an adult," Walsh-Little says of growing up in the Viva House community.
Her husband, David Walsh-Little, a Baltimore City assistant public defender, also lived at Viva House for many years after graduating from Columbia University. From 1995 to 2000, he ran Viva House's Sowebo Center for Justice, which offered free legal advice on housing, state and federal benefits, and criminal-justice matters. "It seemed like an extension of what Viva House already did well," he says. "People tended to have questions about staying out of jail and trying to get by as best they could."
The clinic was discontinued when Walsh-Little had to get a paid job.
These days Bickham and Walsh are Viva House's only live-in residents, but they estimate that about 100 volunteers come throughout the month to work at the soup kitchen or bring food to stock the soup kitchen and food pantry. And not all of those volunteers consider themselves Catholic Workers. Take Anne Watson, for instance: She's been volunteering with Viva House for a decade now, but she doesn't consider herself part of the Catholic Worker community. "We're just feeding people who come here for a nice hot meal in a pleasant atmosphere," she says.
Walsh plans to keep providing that service and doing that work in the neighborhood he and Bickham have served for 40 years. More families in the city are out of work than ever, families with young children are replacing winos and addicts in the lines at the soup kitchens, and crime is rampant on the streets--a fact that is not lost on Walsh, especially after his recent run-in with a would-be mugger.
But his resolve is not shaken. He points to a banner hanging outside of his house that reads love one another. That's what the folks at Viva House plan to do. After 40 years, they are not giving up. H
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