Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Viva House Celebrates 40 Years of Service in Baltimore" Baltimore City Paper Oct 8, 2008

Baltimore City Paper

Oct 8, 2008




At Your Service


By Joe Tropea


Five in the morning is early to find yourself held up at gunpoint,

even in Southwest Baltimore. But on a hot August Tuesday morning

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 Union

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 Baltimore--Walsh is from New York and

Bickham is from Chicago--but they met in Baltimore, in 1967, at St.

Peter Claver's Church in Upton. There they fell in love while working

with the Interfaith Peace Mission draft resisters' movement. Walsh and

Bickham married and spent their honeymoon traveling to different

Catholic Worker houses throughout the country (there are 180 such

communities located throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, and

New Zealand), picking up ideas they could eventually use to start

their own house in Baltimore, which they did when they returned to the city.


"Our first guests were the Catonsville Nine," says Bickham, referring

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 Catonsville Nine and their

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 Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center. 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.

Carrollton Ave. near Hollins Market. It served food five days a week

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 Mount Street (the couple bought the house next

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 Baltimore City assistant public

defender, also lived at Viva House for many years after graduating

from Columbia University. From 1995 to 2000, he ran Viva House's

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



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