The Rev. Vernon Dobson's vision is so clear that he can reach out and touch it. Or step inside it. Or walk up its steps and look out its window.
The vision becoming a reality before his eyes is a three-story Child Care Center, a new jewel in a drab Upton community whose glory days have come and gone.
Mr. Dobson, pastor of Union Baptist Church, said he has envisioned the $2.9 million center since the 1970s. He even suggests that it was part of Union Baptist's master plan 143 years ago when the congregation was formed.
"By putting vast resources into this building, we institutionalize not only the church but also its ministries," he said, keeping out of the way of workers on the building's third floor, which gives a view of Baltimore's skyline.
Mr. Dobson, dressed in work clothes and a slightly crumpled hat, was helping to lay a protective sheet of plastic over new carpet as construction enters the final stage. Workers buzzed about trying to finish the job so the tricycles, desks and cots can move from their current home down the block to the new center before the new year.
The Child Care Center will house the church's Head Start program, which has operated there since the infancy of the federal program that prepares 3- and 4-year-olds for school.
The West Baltimore church has scheduled a dedication ceremony for the building at the church at 3 p.m. Sunday.
The center will operate in a neighborhood in dire need of help. In the Upton community, more than half the children live in poverty and about one-third of households receive welfare, according to 1990 census figures. Nearly all the church members left the community long ago for the Liberty Road corridor and other upscale areas of the city and suburbs. Mr. Dobson said that because members moved away from Upton doesn't mean his church no longer cares about the community.
"We have a responsibility to stay here," he said, adding that the congregation opens its recreation center to the community and holds high-school equivalency classes. Mr. Dobson said 250 children will receive half-day and daylong service, an increase over the 200 children now served.
Church leaders said the building is proof of community service.
"That's been our overarching mission," said Joel A. Carrington, co-chair of Union Baptist's Child First, a committee that is raising funds for the center. "Our current minister wanted us to continue and enhance the community. How better to do that than with our Head Start program?"
The church has received $1.4 million in state bonds to finance construction of the center, which will continue to operate as a secular facility, officials said. Lucretia Billups, a board member of Child First, said parishioners of the 800-member congregation have chipped in $1.5 million.
The federal government pays 80 percent of the cost to operate the Head Start program, the church pays 20 percent. The cost is free for families.
"I tell you it's just a feeling of exhilaration that's going through the congregation," Mr. Carrington said. "We've been energized and uplifted. It's a deeply emotional and moving experience."
Before reaching this point, however, the church had to overcome controversy.
By 1993, Union Baptist had obtained all the property it needed for the new center, except for one parcel, the G & A Food Market owned by Son Chan Pak and his wife, Kwi Yung Pak. The Pak family rejected an offer from the church to buy their building, saying they had been there 13 years and had built a valuable clientele.
The city used its power of eminent domain to take over the property, giving Mr. Pak the appraised value of the building. Mr. Pak hired a lawyer, and the battle grew contentious and bitter. The city's Korean-American community demonstrated at City Hall, charging that the grocer's property rights were being violated. The matter was settled in December when the city agreed to spend $200,000 to buy and renovate a building for the Pak family across the street from their former location.
Dorothy Mapp, the center's director, said she is proud of the work the center has done in the past 28 years helping more than 2,500 students and their parents.
"The building doesn't make the program," she said. "But it does make it easier for the teachers and it makes it easier for the children."