Baltimore's Viva House
Walking from the bus station to Viva House, the home of the Baltimore Catholic Worker, I passed block after block of boarded-up homes. I was coming to celebrate Viva House’s 35th anniversary and to visit its co-founders, Willa Bickham and her husband, Brendan Walsh, whom I knew even before I joined the Jesuits. Since that time in the late 1960’s, the city has declined dramatically. Its population once numbered close to a million, but now hovers around 630,000. The abandoned homes stem from a decades-long loss of employment opportunities, according to Willa and Brendan. Since the 1950’s, over 100,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Those who once held them moved elsewhere in search of work. “I remember standing at our front door and seeing women pass by on their way to work at the Misty Harbor raincoat factory farther down the street,” Willa said.
The loss of jobs contributed to an ever-growing drug trade—an underground economy that has also filled to overflowing the city jail and the Maryland prison located in downtown Baltimore. Ironically, the jail-prison complex, with its 24-hour-a-day shifts seven days a week, has become a major employer. A few years ago, crack cocaine was the favored drug, but now it is heroin, which has affected the drug users who come to the Viva House soup kitchen. Heroin, at least, Willa noted, leaves the user in a relatively calm state, whereas those on crack can become violent. She remembers men who arrived for the meal behaving erratically, ready to explode. “And yet the next day, they’d come back with no memory of their previous behavior.”
Many who visit the soup kitchen are homeless. The housing situation has worsened because the federal government has, according to Willa and Brendan, abandoned its public housing program. The destruction of high-rise apartment buildings led the couple to demonstrate with others at several sites, like that of the now-vanished Murphy Homes. Demonstrations and other efforts on behalf of poor people have always been part of Viva House’s work. Earlier on, while habitable housing stock still existed, they conducted sit-ins in the office of the City Housing Commissioner and attained some success in securing homes for low-income families. But now, as Brendan put it, nothing is left in the way of decent housing, “and the city has no viable plan for the poor who need it.” Even with families doubled and tripled up, he said, evictions for nonpayment of rent remain regular occurrences. A family just a block away had been evicted the week before my visit.
Those fortunate enough to afford the rents face utility bills. If unpaid, the consequence is homes in darkness and without heat. “When you walk past a house at night that you know is lived in, and you don’t see any lights in the windows, you realize their electricity’s been shut off,” Brendan explained. He cited the example of an elderly woman subject to seizures who came to Viva House with an unpaid gas and electric bill of $2,800. “She was living on $469 a month and used candles to get around at night,” he said. Four hours on the phone with several Baltimore Gas & Electric Company officials were needed before they agreed to reduce the debt to a sum Viva House could pay through donations. Advocacy work of this kind consumes much of Willa and Brendan’s time, and after 35 years working on behalf of Baltimore’s poorest residents they have become known to city officials. As Brendan put it, “we have a reputation.”
Although advocacy work and direct services through its soup kitchen account for much of Viva House’s work, Willa and Brendan emphasized that another part involves resistance—resistance to today’s consumer culture, but especially to the machinery of war. They feel they must both serve poor people and oppose the military-industrial complex. Most Catholic Worker communities on the east coast share in this dual thrust, they added, oriented as they are toward the Plowshares movement that began in the early 1980’s with a series of nonviolent disarmament actions by peace activists. Although both Willa and Brendan have been arrested for participating in various demonstrations at the White House and elsewhere, neither has any felony convictions that have resulted in significant jail time. As Willa put it, “we do the works of hospitality better than resistance.” But they have long been co-workers with resisters by providing them with hospitality and other forms of assistance. Supporters of the Catonsville Nine, for example, were among the first to stay at Viva House.
How did Willa and Brendan originally come to think of founding a Catholic Worker house? Both had at one time made a commitment to church ministry—Willa as a sister of St. Joseph and Brendan as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York. But in addition to being strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, they felt drawn to working with poor people. Even before they met, they had found their way to Baltimore, to St. Peter Claver parish—where Phil Berrigan was ministering to African Americans and where he had begun the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission. After their marriage, they found a house for rent at $75 a month near the city’s unstated dividing line between poor whites and African Americans. There they began what has become their life’s work among both groups—a distinctively Christian vocation based on Matthew 25 and the Beatitudes.
In those early days, when they were also raising Kate, their daughter, Willa and Brendan took turns holding paid jobs. One went out to work while the other stayed home to provide hospitality and run the soup kitchen. Brendan taught at local Catholic high schools, and Willa worked as a pediatric nurse practitioner at a clinic. Once retired from that job, she was able to help care for Phil Berrigan during the last stages of his life at Jonah House, a resistance community about a mile north of Viva House.
The soup kitchen remains the primary focus of Viva House—an undertaking that involves far more than food. “How you serve the meal is as important as what you serve,” Brendan explained. “People come here for the sense of dignity it provides them.” On days when the hot meal is not served, sandwiches are distributed. Despite a 20 percent reduction in population for that part of the city, there has been no corresponding drop in the number seeking help—a sign of the deepening poverty of the city’s low-income residents. A number of those who come to Viva House are mentally ill or physically handicapped, and many bear the marks of addiction. As a nurse practitioner, Willa has seen addicts arrive “with terrible abscesses on their arms and legs” at points where they had injected drugs into their veins.
Willa and Brendan stay in touch with Catholic Worker houses in other parts of the country. They acknowledge, though, that the newer ones tend to be more resistance oriented, with correspondingly less emphasis on starting large soup kitchens like theirs. At these newer undertakings, hospitality might take the form of sharing the house with one or more poor families on a short-term basis. Viva House itself, they said, may eventually assume another kind of existence, but it will continue to embody the life concept implied in its name, Viva. And for both Willa and Brendan, faith continues to underlie all they do. “We are spiritual people,” Willa said, and their spirituality is reflected in their ongoing commitment to those whom the world regards as least.