Oct 8, 2008
At Your Service
By Joe Tropea
Five in the morning is early to find yourself held up at gunpoint,
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
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
Bickham is from
Peter Claver's Church in
with the Interfaith Peace
Bickham married and spent their honeymoon traveling to different
Catholic Worker houses throughout the country (there are 180 such
communities located throughout the
New Zealand), picking up ideas they could eventually use to start
their own house in
"Our first guests were the
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
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
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.
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
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
defender, also lived at Viva House for many years after graduating
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
© 2008 Baltimore City Paper