Arts-community center is answer to many prayers

Sirota led her flock on a mission to help kids


In 1995, new vicar Victoria R. Sirota arrived at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity in Park Heights with a bundle of idealistic expectations for the children in her congregation.

Under the church's wing, these kids would not become teen parents. They would go to college. They would not get arrested.

But Sirota soon found that even a loving, resourceful church could not shield children completely from the troubled neighborhood's grip. As her young flock grew up, some had babies, dropped out of school, were charged with crimes.

Still, in a neighborhood where drive-by shootings and open drug deals were commonplace, Sirota didn't relinquish her idealism. It will, in fact, outlive her tenure at the church. In a few weeks, Sirota will leave Holy Nativity, but today, a euphoric crowd will gather at a groundbreaking ceremony for the future Pimlico Road Arts and Community Center, an ambitious project that she and others shepherded through an urban landscape pocked with racial, financial and bureaucratic minefields. Rising from an empty lot once used as a trash dump, the $3.1 million center will house children and family programs as well as host neighborhood events.

Sirota leaves the church with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that the center will be built, but she also comes away from Holy Nativity with a "profound feeling for what is authentic," she says. "You can't work here and be what the kids say is `two-face-ted.' Here, you've got to love everybody exactly the same."

Sirota is leaving to join her husband, Bob, in New York, where he has been named president of the Manhattan School of Music.

It was her husband's work that brought Sirota to Baltimore 10 years ago, when he was appointed director of the Peabody Conservatory.

Vicki Sirota knew that she wanted to lead a small, urban church, and when the accomplished organist with a Harvard divinity degree saw Holy Nativity, her reaction was immediate.

"My heart leapt," she says.

The church, housed in a former auto supply store, was "something I could love," she says. "It was dear."

Loved inside and out

She took the job and her husband joined the church. They quickly learned that Holy Nativity was deeply loved from within as well. The church's longtime members, an integrated group that hailed mostly from outside Pimlico, were similarly devoted to the neighborhood children.

In her first years at Holy Nativity, Sirota met Gregg Knepp, the soon-to-be ordained pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, two blocks from Holy Nativity on Pimlico Road. They found they shared a vision for revitalizing their churches' neighborhood through economic development, and began collaborating to make it happen.

They decided to start with an arts and community center where children could take music lessons through the TWIGS program run by the Baltimore School for the Arts. It would be a place where creativity could flourish, and boredom, which Sirota blamed for much of the neighborhood's ills, would give way to inspiration. The center, intended as the first project in a continuing commitment to Pimlico, would also house the Park Heights Family Support Center and a Head Start program. The center is targeted to open next fall.

Well before their vision was put to paper, it was clear that Sirota, Knepp and other champions "had a real passion and even then a commitment to making this happen," says Ellen Frost, the projects director for Episcopal Housing Corp., which would partner with the churches on the proposed center.

"Knowing the obstacles, they were not deterred," Frost says. "That said something to us."

Together, Holy Nativity and St. John's achieved a delicate alchemy that opened the door for neighborhood involvement.

Both churches having members from the Park Heights neighborhood helped establish the project's credibility among local residents. "You can't enter into a project like this and pretend that race doesn't matter," says Knepp, who like Sirota is white. "Racial issues are really a part of life in Baltimore City. [You can't just think],this is church. We can all get along. You have to deal with the roots of racism and recognize it as a real issue."

The hardest part, Sirota agrees, was overcoming the "racial and cultural barriers that have never been healed from the Civil War and before."

In Pimlico, the barriers took the form of resentment against outside help from "good-intentioned white persons" who could also be perceived as interlopers in a neighborhood long neglected by government and nonprofit agencies, Sirota says.

Success story

The center is testament to Sirota's evolution from practitioner of an introverted form of Anglican spirituality to hands-on priest willing to take blows on behalf of Pimlico's children. During the roller coaster highs and lows that culminated with today's groundbreaking, Sirota says there were moments when she almost gave up.

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