Viva House marking 25 years of nurturing Soup kitchen observes disturbing trends

October 09, 1993|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Today's celebration of 25 years of Christian charity at Southwest Baltimore's Viva House will not be jubilant.

Many hearts have been changed. But what remains to be done is close to overwhelming, Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham observed sadly yesterday as they and many admirers prepared to mark the soup kitchen's anniversary with a scholarly panel discussion, a dinner and a concert of folk music.

Mr. Walsh, a former Catholic seminarian from New York, and Ms. Bickham, a former nun from Chicago, said that poverty, hunger, joblessness, homelessness, family separations, drug dependency, neighborhood hostilities, gun possession, violence, child abuse and despair are all more serious and more prevalent in Baltimore than when they optimistically began their partnership at 26 S. Mount St. a generation ago.

And the trends the husband and wife see are not hopeful.

When Viva House opened its doors, the couple's guests -- as the needy are still called -- were mostly old or middle-age men, many of them coming off a drunk.

"Now, our guests are mostly young people, women, children," Ms. Bickham said. "Twenty-five years ago, you never heard of women living in the streets."

"We could usually get a man on detoxification the same day," Mr. Walsh said. "But not now. De-institutionalization has changed all that."

If the problems are bigger, the solutions at Viva House are the same:

* Simple, nutritious but tasty free food served by cheerful volunteers in pleasant surroundings -- neat, clean rooms of a modest rowhouse with framed art on the walls.

* One-on-one assistance with personal problems, but only if requested, and low-key even then. Privacy and dignity are valued.

Hand-in-hand with the help and hospitality are steely adherence to the principles of the late Dorothy Day, the crusading pacifist who founded the radical Catholic Worker movement in New York and whom the Catholic satirist Evelyn Waugh once called "an autocratic saint who wants us all to be poor."

At Viva House, afflicting the comfortable is considered nearly as important as comforting the afflicted. Big corporations, Baltimore's tourist industry, the bureaucracies of church and state, "the Establishment" in all its forms, are often seen as the implacable enemy.

Dorothy Day, for whom canonization as a Catholic saint is under official review, preached that well-off Christians must suffer along with the poor as Jesus did, and her example is the standard for Viva House.

Mr. Walsh was disheartened by his statistics. He keeps careful ++ records as he, his wife and a fluctuating band of volunteers buy, prepare and serve the food at Viva House -- currently three afternoons a week.

"In 25 years, we have served more than 600,000 meals, distributed more than 260 tons of food to neighbors, provided a temporary home to more than 3,000 men, women and children," Mr. Walsh said. He considers this no mean accomplishment for an operation that accepts no public money but depends entirely on private contributions.

But he pointed to another page of statistics with less satisfaction.

"Since 1987, the daily average of meals we served has grown steadily from about 60 to 270," he said. "And what was supposed to be temporary aid has become permanent."

Today's anniversary events at St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, 5401 Loch Raven Blvd. in Northeast Baltimore, begin at 2 p.m. with a discussion by Mary Nelis, a Northern Ireland activist; the Rev. Frank Cordaro, an Iowa priest; and Howard Zinn, a Boston University professor. Singer and composer Charlie King performs at 6:30 p.m.

Tomorrow, an anniversary Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. at Viva House. Information: 233-0488.

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