A building could be born again

Conversion: An ailing merchant and a committed pastor envision a kitsch store on Light Street becoming a Christian high school.

April 14, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

At Light and Cross streets, the evangelical minister stops and stares at one of Federal Hill's most storied businesses.

"The Lord is about to do something big in South Baltimore," proclaims the Rev. Steve Wolverton, 37, in a voice loud enough to be heard across the street.

"We need a safe haven for Christian kids, an incubator where young people can grow."

Wolverton's push for such a place could mark the beginning of a striking transformation in one of southern Baltimore's busiest intersections.

The courtship of LifeChangers Ministries and Herb Rosenberg -- not complete -- is an upbeat if unusual tale involving a big, born-again Southerner, a novelty-obsessed native New Yorker, the Air Force and Elvis Presley.

By fall, Wolverton hopes to open an institution new to the southern Baltimore peninsula: a private, evangelical Christian high school.

If Wolverton and Rosenberg seal the deal, the school would occupy Herb's Bargain Center, the one-of-a-kind kitsch store at 1038 Light St.

The timing for a sale of Herb's is ripe. Rosenberg, 71 and in faltering health, wants to retire.

Word of mouth on the new school is strong: Students and parents hope the LifeChangers School could be -- at $2,700 a year -- an affordable alternative to troubled Southern High School.

Wolverton and Rosenberg say the school also would stand as a strong contrast to a recent wave of conversions in the area, which has seen banks, theaters and warehouses transformed -- almost without exception -- into bars.

"We'd like people on their way to drinking establishments to stop and see this place," says Ray Hoffman, a friend of Wolverton's who is active in the school effort.

"This whole area is going to change in 10 or 15 years. And we don't want Christians to feel like fish out of water."

Wolverton felt a little out of his element when he first bought and rehabilitated a Federal Hill home in 1993. He grew up in Agricola, Miss., 300 miles south of Elvis' hometown of Tupelo.

At age 14, he says, he was a wild, "little Tasmanian devil." Then he got saved. He carried a Bible to high school. By 18, the broad-shouldered young man, nearly 6 feet 4 inches, had a license to preach.

Lacking the money for college, he joined the Air Force. The job took him around the world, and he joined churches along the way.

Eventually, he went back to school, earned a college degree and found a job as an electrical engineer for the federal government in 1986. After some time in Glen Burnie, the country boy tried the city.

Wolverton and his wife, Vickie, an artist and teacher, began attending Lee Street Memorial Baptist Church -- it's really on Warren Avenue -- in early 1994. By 1996, he had become the youth pastor and founded LifeChangers Ministries, a nonprofit church offshoot.

LifeChangers started by pairing young people with adult Christian mentors. But, increasingly worried about local public schools and the children he encountered, Wolverton began talking about opening a youth center that would include a school.

Encouraged by neighborhood parents, he researched Christian education last summer, contacting two of the state's newer evangelical schools, Chapelgate Christian Academy in Marriottsville and Evangel Christian Academy in Essex.

Rick Cech, Evangel's vice principal, was cautious. He told Wolverton about the difficulty of finding good Christian teachers, about the frustrations of connecting with parents, and about enforcing a traditional dress code on 1990s children.

Wolverton was undeterred.

"Across the nation, there's a huge increase in Christian schools," says Rob VanNess, the Chapelgate headmaster. There were about 500 more Christian schools nationwide in 1995 than in 1990, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. "But they're not easy to start or to run. The culture of the country is changed. The country doesn't accept absolutes. But we have to base our teaching on the absolute fact of God and who he is."

For his part, Rosenberg says he isn't religious. But he believes in Elvis. The King has sustained Herb's Bargain Center for years -- along with the chopped liver sandwiches Herb's wife, Phyllis, makes for beat cops.

"I'm a regular," says Southern District Police Officer Ken Lipman, who patrols the business district on foot. "There's no other place like it."

The Rosenbergs moved into the three-story building at 1038 Light a quarter-century ago.

There, they joined a thriving corridor of small and medium-sized retailers, anchored by Epstein's department store. For a few years, they kept open the existing business, the Arundel Ice Cream Parlor, before devoting all the space to Herb's Bargain Center.

Rosenberg had learned the novelty trade in New York before moving to Baltimore to take a job at Goldenberg's on Eastern Avenue. He built his business by buying salesmen's samples of hard-to-find items.

He stocked the caps of baseball teams that had long ago disappeared. He kept on hand Christmas favors and ornaments that hadn't been made since World War II.

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