Nourishing the soul For 30 years, Viva House soup kitchen has stepped up to the plate to feed hungry Baltimoreans. As its founder have given, so have they received.

October 28, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

"Fifty-three. Fifty-four. Fifty-five ..."

Brendan Walsh's head count at the doorway into the Viva House soup kitchen numbers the poor in this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood.

Fifty-three is a guy on crutches Walsh recognizes.

"Hey, you're getting around pretty good, huh? Beats that wheelchair, doesn't it?"

The poor may be with us always, as the Scriptures say, or maybe not, but the line at Viva House certainly seems endless. They come on foot, on crutches, in wheelchairs, old and young, alone and in couples and, more often over these last years, in family groups large and small.

Walsh and his wife, Willa Bickham, opened the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and Resistance at 26 S. Mount St. in October 1968. On Thursday, Viva House celebrates its 30th anniversary with an open house and fried chicken dinner. Bickham and Walsh figure they've served three-quarters of a million meals in the neighborhood known as Sowebo and handed out more than 300 tons of food. Some 3,000 homeless people, mostly women and children, have found temporary shelter at Viva House.

All this without government money, without foundation grants, without help from Catholic Charities or even the Maryland Food Committee. Instead they carry on with unpaid volunteers, small private donations and the aid of schools and parishes.

The couple lives in the two rowhouses that now make up Viva House and raised their daughter there. Bickham is 56; Walsh, 55. Both have grown a bit gray but retain a buoyant, youthful energy. Bickham is 5-foot-3, tough, vibrant and warm. Walsh, only a tad taller, has a solid, planted, four-square look as he collects chits at the doorway.

Walsh gives out numbers at the gate to the lovely garden in the back yard to keep a little order. Then he calls out numbers when tables become available, a soup kitchen maitre d'.

"Seventy-four. Seventy-five. We're in the second hundred now."

Two kids leave carrying foam cups of juice.

"Don't throw the cups on the street, if you can help it," Walsh cautions.

"They're carrying them home," says their grandmom.

"So you need them? OK," Walsh says.

In this neighborhood, recycling means reusing plastic cups. The neighbors of Viva House are among the poorest people in the city. The last census showed 41 percent live below the $12,674 poverty line for a family of four. And lots of families of four eat regularly at the soup kitchen. Fifty-five percent of the children here live below the poverty line.

A family place

"I think we have developed into a very family-oriented place," Bickham says. "They know it's safe to come here to eat. They come by to use the phone. They come by for help with papers to fill out. They know we're here at night. They know we're here in the morning."

The couple's daughter, Kate Walsh-Little, is here again, too.

Growing up at Viva House, she says, "I got to meet so many different kinds of people, and it just made me so open to other cultures. It was different. There were tons of people living here -- and there were all these meetings after meetings. I thought everybody lived like that."

Today, she is 29 and living here with her husband David Walsh-Little, a lawyer working with the poor at his Sowebo Center for Justice. She teaches at Frederick Elementary School, about six blocks west, and runs a reading and writing program at Viva House. The Walsh-Littles tithe part of their earnings for the house, and volunteer at the soup kitchen.

Bickham and Walsh have always worked outside jobs to pay their private expenses. After she got her degree from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, she went to work for Mercy Southern Health Center. After 21 years, she's still there on a half-time schedule.

"The work was so complementary to Viva House that I just stayed," she explains. It's lovely to be paid well to do one of the works of mercy in a neighborhood adjoining Viva House. The people that I took care of, some of them are from this neighborhood."

Margaret Raider waits with four of her children -- she has nine -- under the shelter in the pretty backyard with its handsome crape myrtle and early fall flowers and a fine old fir in the corner. "I got married young," says Raider, 49. "My oldest is 31, my baby's 4."

They're regulars at Viva House. The meal they'll eat this day is two "coddies," macaroni salad, potato chips and juice, and milk for the kids. Oranges and bread are on the table.

"There's nothing we serve we wouldn't sit down and eat ourselves," Walsh says.

A few days later, the menu is three hot dogs, pork and beans flavored with ham and brown sugar, and sauerkraut. Bickham fills plates in the kitchen.

"I think there's a great deal of peace and respect at the soup kitchen because they know we live here," she says. "No one tries to trash it because it's their place, too."

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