Baltimore soup kitchen workers hail Derry spirit

Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh from Baltimore. (0908MM15)
Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh from Baltimore. (0908MM15)
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An American couple who run a soup kitchen in one of the poorest areas of Baltimore have said they have been impressed by the community spirit in Derry.

Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham run Viva House, a Catholic Worker soup kitchen in south east Baltimore, an area made famous by gritty television series, ‘The Wire.’ The fifth season of the hit show actually featured their soup kitchen

The pair are regular visitors to Derry thanks to a 30 year friendship with former politician, Mary Nelis.

Last week they returned to Derry for the first time in five years and said they were impressed with the changes that have taken place.

“We have seen such a change in Derry. It is now a place where young people want to stay,” Willa said.

“The number of tourists we have seen is unbelievable. People are hearing about Derry and want to come and see it for themselves. We have been coming here since the 1980s and the place just looks great now. The whole river and the peace bridge look beautiful,” she said.

She also said it is the people of the Derry who impressed them most. “The sense of community in Derry is very impressive. It is a community that came together in war so it has a common experience. Despite all the problems people never gave up. When we first came here there was soldiers and checkpoints and all the trappings of war but there was also a strong community sector of people who were working for the good of the city. That’s how we first met Mary,” she explained.

Brendan said people in Baltimore could learn from Derry’s experiences. “While our problems are different there are some similarities. Since 1950 the city has lost a third of its population and there is now a real drug war raging, with all the problems that brings.

“The gap between rich and poor is widening and we now have whole inner city areas like ours that are becoming deserted. “They call the boarded up houses abandominiums.

“We have around 200-250 coming into Viva House for each meal and we also operate a food pantry. We don’t look at it as a work of charity; instead we see it as a work of justice, correcting the balance for people who have been let down by their government,” he said.

While in Ireland the couple also visited Belfast.