The ceiling of this church is the sky. There are no stained-glass windows, just graffiti-covered concrete walls. No pews, only chairs unfolded on a vacant lot in Station North.
Church members arrive by motorized wheelchairs, walkers, canes. A few smoke cigarettes or drink out of bottles wrapped in plastic bags. Many have slept on the streets, and some still lack permanent housing. Then there is Pastor Elazar Schoch Zavaletta, a religious leader as unique as this congregation. He is joyfully and proudly trans at a time when many who identify as Christian are leading efforts to curbs the rights of trans people.
Known until now as North Avenue Mission, the church meets on Mondays at rush hour near a busy Baltimore street corner. Buses whoosh by, music throbs from a passing car, sirens howl. Yet here there is a sense of the holy. When Pastor Elazar lifts his arms and Deacon Bridgette says, “We are here,” this unlikely congregation calls back, “God is here too!”
The church is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, although some who worship here do not consider themselves Christian. Many have struggled with alcohol or drugs and have spent time behind bars. Many have significant health problems; this fall, one core member was hospitalized with pneumonia and another was hit by a truck and spent two weeks in Shock Trauma. They are acutely aware of the fragility of life; in the three and a half years since North Avenue Mission began, five founding members have died.
Much is precarious. The church members do not own the lot where they worship. They also do not own the lot where they built Red Shed Village, a space for unhoused people to sleep. Sometimes church members disappear for weeks or months.
Despite these challenges, church members are dedicated to helping others, giving away groceries and clothing at a free market every other Wednesday, serving meals after services, distributing Narcan and condoms, and caring for the residents of the Village.
For many, this is the first place where they feel they belong. Zavaletta, 44, who uses the pronouns he and they, understands. He has also experienced addiction and rejection.
He grew up in a conservative charismatic church, striving for his father’s approval and deeply torn by the knowledge that he was queer— and, in the eyes of the church in which he was raised, an abomination.
Zavaletta struggled with drugs as a teen, then got sober, excelled in college and came out as trans. He was working on a doctorate at Columbia University when he felt called to ministry and enrolled in a seminary. A complicated journey brought him to Baltimore and Station North, where Lutheran Bishop Bill Gohl assigned him to explore the needs of unhoused people in early 2020, just before COVID hit. Improbably, a church began to grow.
What has happened since is a remarkable story of transformation, for Zavaletta and for those he has drawn to him.
“When I stand with people who are on the underside of power and the outskirts of hope, I’m healing a part of myself,” Zavaletta says. “It’s a gift of queerness to be able to apprehend beauty and honor and value where the world doesn’t and to see those things and to fly in the face of it and to say, ‘You might find this shameful, but I find it beautiful.’ ”
One winter day in 2020, Zavaletta walked up to Sharonda Nutt on North Avenue and asked if she was hungry.
“I just looked at him like, ‘Who is this white man asking if I’m hungry?’ ” she recalled. “I was skeptical, but when he got to talking to me, I started to loosen up.”
Over burgers at McDonald’s, Zavaletta — who is not white but of mestizo heritage — asked Nutt about the needs of the community. Nutt had some opinions, because at the time she slept on relatives’ couches and sometimes the street. Together, they sketched out a rough vision.
“I thought, ‘All I could do is just give it a try,’ ” said Nutt. “So we started meeting every week.”
Another person at those first meetings was Anneke Corbitt, better known as PeeWee.
“She was like the mayor of the neighborhood, and she immediately jumped in and walked me around introducing me,” Zavaletta said.
Station North is a complicated neighborhood, etched by hope and despair. A little over a decade ago, several new businesses opened near the intersection of North Avenue and Charles Street. Many of them, including the Wind-Up Space and Red Emma’s bookstore, have since closed or moved. The Parkway Theater, which underwent a massive renovation in 2017, closed earlier in the year. Still, other businesses are thriving. Maryland Institute College of Arts students, travelers through Penn Station, nearby residents and unhoused people all pass through these streets.
Zavaletta began meeting each Thursday with Nutt, PeeWee, a man known as Black Face Dubose and others. Then COVID arrived and everything changed.
Those on the margins were even more vulnerable. The institutions on which they relied for help — shelters, soup kitchens, public buses, health clinics — shut down. While more affluent people logged into Zoom meetings, ordered groceries online and baked sourdough bread, unhoused people wondered how they would find food, sleep safely and get vital medications.
Zavaletta gathered the community each week at the YNOT Lot at North and Charles, where they continue to hold church services. At these first meetings, he did not pray. He asked questions.
“For a lot of folks, they might have gone through life with people not caring too much what they had to say,” he said. “But I cared.”
‘This is the spot to be’
The group began giving out food on Wednesdays, channeling donations from Lutheran churches, nonprofits and farms. At first, the free market, dubbed Farm to Stoop, was held across from the J. Van Story Branch Apartments on 20th Street, a subsidized high-rise for elderly people and those with disabilities, where many in the growing community were living.
“When I first saw them, I was like, ‘What’s going on over there?’ ” said Brian “Black” Chapman Jr., 45, a resident of the apartment building. “I was like, ‘I wanna get on the team too; I wanna volunteer.’ "
Chapman had never been particularly religious. He dealt drugs in his teens and 20s, was shot twice and spent several stints in jail. At the start of the pandemic, he was working odd jobs. He soon found purpose at the free market.
“We started out with 15 people on a Wednesday and next thing you know, we got 50 people, everybody waiting like this is the spot to be,” he said. “And it made me feel good because I’m helping. I’m part of the team now.”
Meanwhile, the need for shelter was becoming even more pressing for some members of the group, including Nutt. “I was between three different households, and every household expected something different,” she recalled. “It was stressful.”
Zavaletta, Nutt, PeeWee, Blackface and others started hashing out a plan to purchase tents so people could sleep on another vacant lot — this one with a lush lawn, community garden and fruit trees — at St. Paul and 20th streets. The team met with the community gardeners and received their permission to set up tents. Then they reached out to Bishop Gohl.
They named the community Red Shed Village after the cheerful gardening shed already on the lot. The first residents — Nutt, Blackface, Kenny and Diddy — moved into the tents in May 2020.
Diddy, who prefers to go by a nickname, spent most of his childhood in foster care. With no family support, he became homeless at age 23, even though he had a steady job. For two years, he slept on park benches or empty lots during the day and worked as a security guard at night. He lived at the Village before moving into an apartment of his own.
“There were a lot of hard crying nights,” said Diddy, now 31. “But even when my own family turned their backs on me, the Village was here for me.”
A sudden loss
It was PeeWee who coined the term “Family Life” for the gatherings at the YNOT Lot. It was PeeWee who drew so many others into the community, assuring them that they could trust Zavaletta.
And, then, all of a sudden, she was gone.
One day, while her husband was out running an errand, PeeWee choked on a bite of food and died. She was 42.
“PeeWee was so full of life,” said Zavaletta. “It was so, so heartbreaking.” The community threw a spirit-filled celebration of the life of PeeWee at the YNOT Lot, the same spot where she had helped with the church’s first baptism just days before.
But with the first pandemic winter approaching, they did not allow their grief to paralyze them.
Zavaletta secured funding from the synod, other churches and private donors to erect four small structures — not houses, but a place to escape the wind and rain. On a frigid day in January 2021, North Avenue Mission members, assisted by volunteers from other Lutheran churches, neighbors and activists, built the structures, each the size of a garden shed, with sturdy wooden walls, gabled roofs and doors that lock. They painted the homes a bright apple green.
They have no running water and electricity, but the sheds are better than sleeping on the street. And the village is a community. Myke Richardson Sr. serves as village lead, checking in with residents frequently. Each Sunday, he leads inspections to ensure that the sheds are clean and free of safety hazards. Then Richardson, Zavaletta, residents and whoever else has stopped by share a hot meal together, talk and pray.
The sheds are meant to be launching pads, a place for folks to find some stability while they wait for a spot in transitional or subsidized housing. Of the 18 people who have lived in the sheds, 14 have found more permanent housing.
Daphne Green, 63, was rolling up St. Paul Street in her motorized wheelchair when she spotted the sheds. She asked about their origins, learned about the church and decided to join, although it is far more liberal than the church she previously attended.
Green is paralyzed in all but her left hand, but uses that hand to do important work. She beckons over each person who arrives at events and inscribes their name and pronouns on a tag.
“I do what I can do,” says Green. “That’s how it’s gonna be until God says otherwise.”
When the congregation of St. Mark’s Lutheran built the church on St. Paul Street in the late 1890s, they spared no expense. They hired a noted architect to design it in the Romanesque style, with thick stone walls and sturdy columns meant to convey permanence. Tiffany Studios designed the interior with rich jewel tones, glimmering mosaics and windows made of the famed Tiffany glass.
German immigrants had flocked to Baltimore throughout the 1800s, bringing their Lutheran faith and building new churches. But as many white people fled the city following the 1968 uprising over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., dozens of churches closed. Since the 1940s, 60 Lutheran churches in Baltimore City have been shuttered, Gohl said; 27 remain open.
There were once 10 Lutheran congregations along North Avenue, Gohl said. Now there are four; three of them have a home in the St. Mark’s building, which was recently awarded a $250,000 National Fund for Sacred Spaces grant.
Zavaletta’s spouse, the Rev. Emily M.D. Scott, is the pastor of St. Mark’s, which has been welcoming LGBTQ people since the 1980s. Scott also created a new church, Dreams & Visions, that even more directly centers LGBTQ people. The congregation organizes an exuberant drag Christmas pageant each year. It also recently launched a gender-affirming thrift store, the Skylight Boutique, with clothes and accessories for trans and gender-variant people.
North Avenue Mission is rooted in the St. Mark’s building too. A plain gray metal door leads to the congregation’s space, which is filled with cozy, weathered couches, shelves of health supplies and donated goods.
The church is unique among the 170 congregations that Gohl leads as bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod.
Zavaletta “felt called to start a new church that had at its core those who were living in situations of street trade, being unhoused, living literally and figuratively at the margins of society,” he said.
For Gohl, North Avenue Mission is undoing some of the harm from decades of disinvestment, structural racism and white flight. He sees the church’s work as a form of reparations.
The church has pushed boundaries and, in so doing, exceeded his wildest dreams, Gohl said.
“It is actually directed by the community,” he said, “not just paying lip service to that idea.”
Like the community, Zavaletta is “agile and nimble and deeply empathetic,” Gohl said. And brave.
“Pastor Elazar kindles in me a deeper commitment to look more closely and listen more closely,” he said. “Pastor Elazar does the best job of anyone I know of passing the microphone to others and not knowing what they’re going to say. It’s exciting. It’s scary. It’s holy.”
Grace as harm reduction
Tuesdays are drop-in days at North Avenue Mission. The gray door swings open again and again as the church’s core team lugs in supplies and others arrive seeking help.
On a clear afternoon in early October, social worker Lauren Siegel, who spent 21 years working for Healthcare for the Homeless, is here, as she is every week. She is hoping a woman who stopped by last time, an unhoused woman caring for her 1-year-old grandbaby, will come back today. She’s been thinking about the pair all week.
“I made so many calls, but I couldn’t find housing for them,” she says. “It was very upsetting.”
Many of those seeking help identify as LGBTQ; they feel safe here because of Zavaletta, even as crimes against trans people are on the rise. Some are queer young people who were kicked out of the family home.
Paperwork is a huge challenge for people who lack housing. Siegel walks clients through the process of obtaining a birth certificate, Social Security card or state-issued ID, which are necessary to secure jobs and housing. She gives them money orders to cover the fees.
Some arrive here looking to shower or wash a load of laundry. On the last Tuesday of the month, a registered nurse tends wounds and guides people in navigating the health care system.
On this day, Deacon Bridgette Dorsey directs visitors to a sign-in sheet and offers them cupcakes with bright pink icing.
Dorsey, 48, grew up in East Baltimore with several family members who had addiction issues. Learning disabilities made school a struggle, and she dropped out of high school when she got pregnant. She started using drugs in her late 20s and spent years dependent on heroin. She was effectively homeless, staying with an abusive partner, when she first saw Zavaletta and the rest worshipping at the YNOT lot in the spring of 2020, wearing masks and standing six feet apart.
Soon after, PeeWee guided her to Zavaletta. “I just kept coming back,” said Dorsey. “I wanted to start helping people.”
In the process, Dorsey helped herself. She completed a recovery program and will celebrate three years of sobriety in November. She applied for and was awarded an apartment in the J. Van Story Branch building, hanging a brightly colored butterfly on her front door.
Dorsey manages the clothing and household goods at Farm to Stoop. On this Tuesday, Dorsey and Chapman, the market manager, sort through bins of donated clothes and home goods. He finds two poofy crinoline tutus and pulls one around his waist and another over his head, then vogues around the space, posing for pictures.
Later, Chapman and Geneva Parrish read poems they are studying as part of The Firewalkers, a church group studying creative expression. Chapman has discovered a talent for writing since joining the church. He jots poems and prayers in a notebook with a gold pen that Zavaletta gave him. “I’m the man with the golden pen,” he says.
Oversized portraits of the people that Zavaletta calls “our saints” watch over the group. There’s PeeWee, of course. Black Face Dubose, the early resident of Red Shed Village, who died from an infected wound. Ms. Candy Manning, an evangelist. Donna Richison, a founder of Farm to Stoop. Kaylin, a little girl who used to ride her tricycle around Farm to Stoop and died during an asthma attack.
Death is hard to forget here. Church members and their loved ones are often hospitalized with health issues. The Guardians, who work to keep vulnerable people safe without calling police, have saved many lives by administering Narcan to reverse overdoses.
Under the leadership of Greg Frailey, North Avenue Mission’s harm reduction lead, church members have tried to saturate the surrounding community with Narcan and test strips that alert drug users to the presence of deadly Fentanyl.
“The goal is to meet people with whatever they need at that time,” says Frailey, who studied harm reduction while earning his master’s degree from American University and who has battled addiction himself. Frailey works full-time with a harm reduction agency, but lives near Red Shed Village and stepped forward early on to help out.
For Zavaletta, the public health concept of harm reduction is much like the Lutheran idea of grace.
“In harm reduction, you meet someone where they’re at, and that’s exactly what God does,” he says. “As human beings we’re always falling, falling short. We’re drawn into the ways of death and destruction. But God’s grace is always there to to reach back and to bring us back to resurrection and life.”
“I know because God brought me back from the brink of the grave,” he says.
Breaking down and building back up
Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, Zavaletta was never sure where they fit in. Their mother, a nurse, is originally from Switzerland. Their father was a Mexican-American doctor with indigenous heritage.
Zavaletta, the middle child, was assigned female at birth, but from childhood felt uncomfortable with that label. They were the favored child of their father, a prominent obstetrician, and were eager to maintain his favor. Despite the harsh rhetoric in their home church, Zavaletta felt a calling. “From a very young age, my inner life has been marked profoundly by a spiritual yearning and a desire to serve,” they said.
In middle school, torn by an emerging sense of being queer and a fear of displeasing their father, Zavaletta, once a strong student, began experimenting with drugs. Within a few years, they were freebasing cocaine and, after ninth grade, dropped out. “I was being raised in a world that saw me as an abomination. I went to drugs and counterculture to look for some sense of truth and abiding spirituality and transcendence,” Zavaletta said.
Though Zavaletta’s father rejected them, their mother, godmother and maternal grandparents were steadfast in their support. “My mom was always accepting and loving, and I think that was my entry point into understanding what God’s love is like,” they said.
As a teen, Zavaletta attended a residential treatment program in Santa Fe and bonded with a lesbian counselor, a follower of Mata Amritanandamayi, known as “the hugging saint.” “She was my way back into spirituality,” they recalled.
In college and graduate school, Zavaletta flourished. They were drawn to topics relating to trans identities, but also transcendence, yearning for something more. And so, they left Columbia University with a master’s degree in literature and enrolled in Union Theological Seminary.
It was a painful time: their eldest sister and father had both recently been diagnosed with cancer. The longing for obliteration in drugs returned, but Zavaletta began following a 12-step recovery program, seeking God’s help.
“Seminary … was like a container for me,” they said. “I kind of broke all the way down and then got built back up.”
Initially, Zavaletta contemplated becoming an Episcopal priest but felt that church leaders were slow to embrace them.
It was around this time that Zavaletta met and fell in love with Scott, who had founded a Brooklyn-based congregation called St. Lydia’s, that met for worship over dinner.
Scott introduced Zavaletta to the Lutheran Church, and they found it far more welcoming. “Lutherans … didn’t see all the ways I fall short or all the ways I stick out as marks against me. They saw ‘God is going to use you and your story.’ ”
The couple moved to Baltimore in 2018, and Gohl officiated their wedding. He encouraged Zavaletta to pursue ordination as a Lutheran minister and assigned them to work at a Dundalk church as a vicar.
That congregation didn’t know what to make of Zavaletta, with their pierced septum, ’80s-style glasses and radical ideas about justice, grace and gender. Meanwhile, Zavaletta began holding outdoor prayer services for people living in the woods near the church.
They told Gohl they were called to work with unhoused people, and the bishop suggested starting in Station North. The community began to coalesce.
“We’re outcasts who embrace each other in solidarity,” Zavaletta said of the congregation. “It makes such a difference when someone looks at you and sees your value.”
Feeding bodies and souls
On a warm day in May, a line of people snakes down North Avenue for Farm to Stoop, the free market run by church members. At a signal from Chapman, the market manager, the first guests are allowed to enter the YNOT lot to take clothing, toiletries, canned goods, fresh meat, bread and produce.
A family serves up plates of warm spaghetti and garlic bread. Dorsey helps people pick through a table of donated clothing. A gaunt woman rolls up in a motorized wheelchair and lifts her partially amputated leg. “I need something that will fit over my stump,” she says.
Slowly, people filter through the lot. Older ladies speaking Korean, young mothers speaking Spanish, Black and white residents of the subsidized apartments, a group of white young adults who appear intoxicated. The North Avenue Mission team works to maintain order.
Then word spreads that a man appears to have overdosed about a block away. Williams rushes over, calls 911 and revives the man with Narcan. After the paramedics arrive, other church members check on her as she sits in the shade for tree.
Williams, 53, spent months just watching the community before Zavaletta persuaded her to get involved. She is a study in contrasts: a mother of eight who spent years incarcerated for dealing drugs. A natural leader, she runs The Guardians with Chinchilla “Chin” Wesley. The group has attended trainings on conflict resurrection and harm reduction. Of the eight members of The Guardians, four have recently secured full-time jobs.
Here Williams puts her confidence and strong voice to work keeping the community safe. “Elazar is just an angel,” she says. “I thank him for bringing me into this.”
At the close of the market, Chapman gathers all of the volunteers into a circle. “Look how big the circle is today,” he says. “Today wound up being a good day. We had enough for people to go around for a few turns, and that was a blessing.”
One man who had lingered behind, repacking his groceries into bags, speaks up. “Thanks, y’all for being here,” he says. “You didn’t have to be here, but you are.”
Becoming Good Trouble
Over the past few years, Zavaletta has explored his indigenous Mexica heritage more deeply. He’s embarked on several vision fasts in the desert. Here in Maryland, he’s taken part in a two spirit powwow and a sweat lodge ceremony for queer indigenous people.
It’s helped him make peace with his late father. “What robbed him of the ability to accept me as I am was colonization and the oppression he faced,” he said. “My dad was a maverick, a very bold and creative person, and I carry on those gifts. I loved him and he loved me.”
In connecting with his roots, Zavaletta grew to feel uncomfortable with the word “mission.” So, at a congregational meeting in June, he proposed changing the church’s name, which was chosen in haste at the start of the pandemic.
“I have personally become more and more aware of the harmfulness of that word ‘mission,’ ” he said, explaining how church missions decimated indigenous people and cultures in the Americas and Africa. “My ancestors were some of those people.”
“So were mine,” said several church members.
He showed the congregation a poster printed with the words of John Lewis, the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“We know the way the world is set up to exploit and oppress our community,” Zavaletta said. “So we stand in a long line of people, including Jesus, who were willing to get into good trouble for the sake of justice.”
Zavaletta proposed a new name: Good Trouble Church: A Way Out of No Way.
The second phrase hearkens to a passage from the Book of Isaiah, “I am making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”'
A few weeks later, the congregation unanimously approved the new name. And today, at what Zavaletta describes as a “rite of passage,” the group will officially become Good Trouble Church.
There are so many things still up in the air. The huts need to be made ready for winter. The Village, despite the myriad improvements that the congregation has made, is not their land. The owner of the YNOT Lot could kick them off at any point. Many core members are facing health challenges.
But, as Zavaletta said at a recent prayer service, church members know they can rely on one another and their faith.
“The world can have its opinions,” he said. “But we know who we are, Lord, and we know you love us.”