Viva House soup kitchen has provided 45 years of service

Without fanfare, Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh have made a home amid homelessness

  • Frank Cordaro, a longtime friend of of Viva House's Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh, helps serve lunch during a visit from Des Moines, Iowa, where he has been running a Catholic Worker house for 38 years.
Frank Cordaro, a longtime friend of of Viva House's Willa… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
April 14, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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