Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Mother the Activist

May/June 2008 Issue of

Baltimore Smart Women

My Mother the Activist

By Kate Walsh-Little

Photography by Bryan Burris

Many people look up to my mother, Willa Bickham. She has been a tireless advocate for peace and justice since she left Chicago for Baltimore during the Vietnam War era. In 1968 she and my father, Brendan Walsh, started Viva House, a Catholic Worker soup kitchen in southwest Baltimore . They have often been in the public eye. My mom is dynamic, gracious and full of enthusiasm, and she magnetically attracts people who embrace the work of Viva House. She is well known to many people, but to me she is Mom. I have always felt proud and fortunate to be the daughter of Willa Bickham, to know her in a way that others see only in glimpses. I love her and I also like her. She has taught me many things.

One thing I have learned from my mom is compassion. Hers is evident to those who know her work at Viva House. Daily she gives out food to the folks in the neighborhood who are poor. She answers the door, answers the phone, hauls food in, cooks, listens to problems, answers the door again.

She had the same compassion toward all her patients when she worked as a pediatric nurse practitioner at Mercy Southern Health Center . Patients called our house day and night for help or advice, and my mom would always follow up on their progress.

What other people don't know is that she has the same compassion for her family. Whenever anyone needs something, she is quick to step in.

If I need a babysitter, a recipe, advice, a hug, my mom is the first person there. Recently, her 91-year-old father had to be hospitalized. My mother was immediately on a plane to Chicago to help her siblings take care of him. For the last few years, she has made a commitment to visit him every two months to help with his daily chores, which he is no longer able to do. Her compassion is remarkable, globally and locally.

My mother also taught me about peace and justice. As a child I was taken to planning meetings, demonstrations, rallies. My mom has shown me that it is important to fight for the rights of workers, the poor and the disenfranchised as well as to oppose war. Fighting the proverbial "famine and the crown" has always been a part of life for her. She believes that the work of Viva House is about justice, not charity. People who come to the soup kitchen have a right to the food; we are just redistributing the wealth.

These ideas that there is a connection between poverty and war and that everyone should have the basic necessities of life have had a profound impact on the choices I make. I can't thank my mother enough.

Obviously, cooking is an essential part of running a soup kitchen. My mom passed along her culinary talents to me. She taught me balance in choosing foods and how to cook holistically. Cooking together connected us; there has always been love in the baking. I have tried to give this gift to my own daughters. As our good friend Ed Loring, co-founder of the Open Door (jokingly called the "Protestant Catholic Worker" soup kitchen), says, "Justice is important, but supper is essential." I have many fond memories of baking bread and making yogurt with my mother. It was important for her to show me how to use whole grains and to eat all of the food groups, but she also reminded me to have balance in my life. Treats were to be enjoyed. "Everything in moderation," she would say. As much fun as it was to be covered in flour, I think what I really loved about cooking and baking with my mother was having special time to be alone and talk with her.

My mother is also an artist. Beginning with silkscreens and banners, she has moved on to watercolors, which are exquisite. I love how my mother has always made space in her life for art. She has a great vision of how our world should be, which comes out in her artwork. Her landscapes are just as vital as her political statements; we all need to think about the kind of world we want to create.

Related to her art is her appreciation of beauty, especially when it comes to flowers and gardening. My mom has created a glorious garden in the back and side yards of Viva House. Like the social activist Dorothy Day, she believes that people need dignity and respect as much as they need food. And so the pansies, stargazer lilies and petunias bloom for everyone to delight in while they wait for a meal.

The soup kitchen's tables always bear vases filled with flowers and the walls are covered with artwork. My mother holds beauty in high regard.

In one of my favorite books, The Red Tent, the author, Anita Diamant, says, "The reason women wanted daughters was to keep their memories alive … stories were like offerings of hope and strength poured out before the Queen of Heaven, only these gifts were not for any god or goddess but for me." My mom's stories have given me the courage to carry on in my own life, in my own way, as an activist, teacher and singer and as the mother of three daughters. I am grateful to my mother for all of her nurturing. Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Viva House distributes food bags to families in need. Families need additional food help in the summer because children are not getting meals at school. Willa Bickham, who for 40 years has run the soup kitchen with her husband, Brendan Walsh, asks for nonperishable, nutritious foods that can be packed in a strong grocery bag. Here are the recommended items for one bag:

* 2 cans of fruit

* 1 pound of pasta

* 1 large jar or can spaghetti sauce

* 2 boxes macaroni and cheese

* 1 jar peanut butter

* 1 jar jelly

* 2 jars of nuts

* 1 can green vegetable

* 2 cans soup

* 1 box unsugared cereal

To arrange a time to drop off food bags, call Viva House at 410-233-0488. Address: 26 S. Mount St. , Baltimore 21223 . The best delivery dates are Friday morning May 23 and Friday morning June 27.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center , 325 E. 25th St. , Baltimore , MD 21218 . Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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