Nathaniel Center in Kingwood Promotes Cultural and Biblical Education
Like other performing-arts facilities around the country, the Nathaniel Center is a place for actors, dancers and musicians to practice and present their talents. Unlike other centers, there’s a moral theme to the work performed.
The $3.5 million Nathaniel Center for Cultural and Biblical Education in Kingwood opens its doors to Christian artists, performing troupes and anyone who wants to exhibit moral entertainment, executive director Vicki Sarvadi said. Sarvadi and her husband, Administaff co-founder Paul Sarvadi, established the center through their philanthropic Nathaniel Foundation.
In Hebrew, “Nathaniel” means “gift of God,” and the Sarvadis are sharing the gift of personal and corporate success with the community, she said. One of the goals of the center is “taking the arts back for God,” she said.
“It has gotten to be so lewd in so many ways: the language, the costumes, the story line, the plot,” she said. “I feel the Lord wants (the arts) back.”
The two-story, 37,000-square-foot center features a 500-seat theater with new sound and lighting systems. It also has dance studios, classrooms for acting, a TV studio and other facilities.
“It is a little Jones Hall up in northeast Houston,” said the Rev. Bron Barkley, a member of the foundation’s board and pastor of Congregation Shalom, a Christian congregation that explores the Jewish roots of Christianity. The Congregation, as it is known, worships at the center and includes the Sarvadis among its members.
Barkley, a musician and composer, said he encouraged the foundation’s board to establish a center for the performing arts. The 3-year-old foundation is an outgrowth of a Sarvadi family foundation that funded charitable and community service programs.
“For many, many years since I was a child, I have seen that pop culture has led our society into some unhealthy directions,” Barkley said. “That is a whole lot of the drive behind the Nathaniel Center, to uplift cultural expressions that are healthy and especially integrate well with a faith life.”
Vicki Sarvadi agrees. “We are providing a venue for Christians to get out there in the performing arts and make a statement,” she said, “to provide for the community something better than is out there in the world.”
The original building was designed as a health center but later used by community performing groups, Barkley said. It required a yearlong, extensive renovation after the foundation purchased it in December 2000. “It looked beat up and really dark,” Sarvadi said.
The renovations, including nearly $1 million in technology for the theater stage, have thrilled professional artists and art students.
“It is a very professional stage,” said Stephen Hurst, director of A.D. Players’ Theater Arts Academy. “It is a state-of-the-art stage that can be used to accommodate not only drama but almost any kind of theatrical endeavor.”
A.D. Players performed John, His Story at the center last month, with Hurst in the title role.
Hurst, who conducts academy acting classes at the center on Thursdays, said he was not aware of any other arts center in the United States dedicated to the Christian perspective.
The center also is home to dance classes offered by Call to Glory, a Christian dance company.
Sandy McAnulty’s five daughters, ages 3 to 12, attend the classes. Before the program moved into Nathaniel Center in January, the classes met in a shopping center in Atascosita, said McAnulty, who assists in the dance education.
Now about 200 students learn and practice ballet, hip-hop and other dances in mirror-walled studios. “We were just blown away by the facility,” McAnulty said.
The Nathaniel Center is the culmination of a long spiritual journey for the Sarvadis.
Vicki Sarvadi had a born-again experience as a 13-year-old junior high school student. She was in a Lutheran catechism class when she became emotional after her teacher explained that she was saved by God’s freely given grace.
“It was something I had heard probably a million times before, but I heard it differently that day,” she said. “It affected me, I was moved by it.”
She began attending church services regularly and even tithed her allowance.
At Jersey Village High School, she met Paul Sarvadi, everyone’s pick for Most Likely to Succeed. “He was at the top of every organization you could think of,” she said. “He was so different from the other guys. He seemed to have an adult mind.”
As for Paul, it was “love at first sight. I knew right away she was the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”
They married when he was a freshman at Rice University and she was a junior in high school. Vicki Sarvadi’s sole ambition was to be a mother and a wife. “I was not one of those women who got out to pursue the world,” she said.
The couple quickly began a family and now have six children: Shannon, 27; Cynthia, 23; Diana, 21; Kristen, 17; Wes, 14; and Brittany, 9.
Paul dropped out of college, providing for his family with a series of successful sales ventures.
The couple’s spiritual life dramatically changed with the death of a child an hour after birth. Vicki’s second pregnancy, in February 1978, was difficult. “I was very sick and became jaundiced,” she said. She was hospitalized, and her internal organs began to fail. The boy died shortly after birth, and Vicki, unconscious, was transferred to another Houston hospital. During the ambulance ride, Paul underwent a spiritual transformation, changing from an achiever who depended on himself to a man who depended on God, his wife said. “This warmth came over him, he just knew I was going to make it,” she said.
Doctors did not share his confidence. They told Paul to summon family members because she would not survive the night. “I did have a clinical death,” she said. “They did revive me and brought me back. I came out of the coma in three days.” She recovered completely, much to attending physicians’ astonishment.
“It saved our marriage,” she said. “What was arrogance and cockiness became confidence and faith. Paul totally changed.”
“That’s what led me to the point of looking up and saying (to God), `I have always felt pretty much in control, but this was obviously out of my control.’ I had sought God out in the ambulance and prayed,” he said. “I received what I would call today a seed of faith that things would be OK.”
The Sarvadis joined a Baptist church, then a second local church.
In 1988, they joined Chapel in the Forest, an Assembly of God congregation founded by Barkley. Three years ago, the Sarvadis and a few other members followed Barkley, who resigned his pastorate to form Congregation Shalom.
The group first met in the Sarvadis’ home. The couple later renovated a barn on their property for use as a worship center, Barkley said.
The Congregation now worships on Saturdays at 6 p.m. in the Nathaniel Center, Barkley said.
“What we do is provide a platform to teach Christians about their Jewish roots,” said Vicki Sarvadi, who is a minister with the Congregation.
The Nathaniel Center is not a church, she emphasized. “We are not a religious organization.”
But it will promote the arts and spiritual growth, Paul Sarvadi said. “The potential for the facility to really be a center for both cultural and spiritual development is beyond what I even imagined originally,” he said. “I hope it becomes for the community a place people will think of when planning their leisure time.”
Houston Chronicle Religion Editor
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle April 20, 2002.