Twilight has settled at First and Pine, across from Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Down the street, a red neon sign advertises “Live Girls.” Inside a video shop on the corner, a hand-lettered poster reads, “Beat Me, Bite Me, Whip Me, Kick Me.” The big, round Market clock looks down on a bustling scene as myriad colored lights begin to give the place a garish glow.

“Don’t quit coming,” a troubled teen begs Fishermen’s Club founder Pat Butler. “We need to know that someone cares about us.”

Most of the tourists have gone, on this weekday evening. Now the area’s indigenous street people are coming out to mingle with sailors on leave, ladies of the evening, and young folks looking for a good time.

Up at Third and Pine, a mobile police office van and three squad cars with flashing lights attest to the watchful presence of the Seattle Police Department. Gleaming condo towers on First Avenue keep uniformed security police in high profile “to foster a safe and secure environment that encourages business patronage day and night,” according to the security company’s public-relations material. Their presence may have dampened the flamboyant spirit of the area, but the materials are still there.

A one-legged man crosses the street on crutches, and Pat Butler engages him in conversation as other members of the Fishermen’s Club keep a discreet distance. After a while, they all join hands to pray with the man, and another sinner enters the kingdom of God.

Michael, an intern at the nearby Union Gospel Mission, takes the man to the mission to get him a Bible and talk about enrolling him in a resident recovery program.

Hitting the streets

It is Friday night, and once again Pat Butler, 45, a heavy-equipment operator by day, has headed straight home and into the shower. Donning a uniform of casual clothes, he finally arrives at the mission, where he prays with the other Fishermen’s Club members who are gathered there. The Fishermen’s Club, a loose-knit fellowship of men from nine area churches, is prepping itself for its ritual journey through the “ ‘hoods” of urban Seattle.

After prayer, Pat, an ex-hippie, ex-criminal, and self-professed “ex-heathen,” leads the group out in twos and threes to fish for converts on Skid Row (Seattle’s is the original) and the town’s other tough streets.

On Friday nights like this one, Pat keeps an eye out for Seattle’s growing population of “throwaway teenagers.” This city is the “grunge” capital of the world. Kids can be seen wearing a mishmash of loose-fitting, grubby clothes that seem to say, “I couldn’t care less” to the witnessing world.

Article continues below

Pat relates. Before becoming a Christian, he—like many of these youths—had long hair and patchy jeans. In his case, he also sported beads and rode around in a Volkswagen with flowers painted all over it.

Grunge kids hang out along Broadway, on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a stretch of pavement Pat calls “Mardi Gras 365 days a year.” They are kids like Vinnie, whose mother took her to a grocery store parking lot when she was two and told her to go inside and tell the workers that Mom didn’t want her anymore. Leah has been stabbed 14 times. Susie was a heroin addict at age 12. She calls Pat “Dad” because she never knew her real father. After serving 26 months at the Washington Corrections Center for Women for selling cocaine, she was baptized at Christmastime and was married the following day—by Pat.

Pat has been street witnessing on and off for more than 25 years. He and his wife, Ruth Ann, strayed from God for a while and ended up in Seattle. Eventually, they returned to God and to the streets, helping found the Fishermen’s Club. Pat says, “We preach and teach Jesus and leave the peripheral issues at the door.” Probably because he so obviously loves them, the kids respond. One desperate youth told Pat, “Don’t quit coming. We need to know that someone cares about us.”

One thing seems sure: Pat won’t quit coming. In the spring of 1992, Pat was talking to several members of the Crips gang and some other nongang teens; he invited them to have pizza. “How about a Bible study, too?” they asked. They have been meeting once a month at a local Godfather’s Pizza ever since. Local police now walk through the place, amazed to see members of rival gangs actually getting along. One officer said to Pat, “I don’t know what you are doing, but please keep it up.”

Pizza, heroin, and Jesus

It is pizza night, and an anomalous bunch shows up: there are Dragon and Butterfly and Vicki and Alexis. Chris arrives in a Yellow Cab because his bike has a flat tire. Belinda, normally a regular, isn’t there—she is serving time for doing a “trifecta”: armed robbery, assault, and car theft.

“And she’s such a little bitty thing,” Pat says somberly.

Vicki, 16, is talking to Pat about being “fostered” by Pat and his wife: “I’d like to live with a dad and mom,” she says.

But when Pat asks if she can obey the rules, she thinks it over and says, “Yes, but I’d like to live with my boyfriend for a couple more weeks first.”

Article continues below

Pat is wearing a T-shirt reading “Soul Patrol.” He holds up a newspaper article to the group. It is about a former group member, Cecil, who was shot by a woman he raped. The group gasps in disbelief.

“You never know,” interjects Pat, “when the lights are going to go out!”

Pat has brought a guest speaker, Lief, a talk-show host on a local Christian radio station. The kids listen as the man talks about his own broken family; it registers. The ensuing conversation is earthy, basic, nothing held back. After the meeting formally ends, kids stick around to talk some more.

As many as 20 teens have received Christ by coming to one of the pizza nights. They are reeled in from lives often wracked by parent abuse or heroin addiction—legacies that are all too common in this tattered subculture.

Not too long ago, Pat and his 21-year-old daughter, Tabitha, who often ministers with him, met an 18-year-old boy and his 19-year-old sister, both of whom had been kicked out by their suburban parents. Both were heroin addicts with no place to live. Desperate, they asked Pat for help. So he took them to the Union Gospel Mission, where they have expressed a desire to get into a recovery program.

For this heavy-equipment operator, Friday nights mean hitting the streets and getting grungy. It is simply a part of who he is, though he is quick to assert he is doing nothing unusual. The grunge fisherman says, “This is not an original ministry. Two-thousand years ago Jesus went where people were and gave them living water. That’s what the Fishermen’s Club does.”

By Emmit Glanz in Seattle.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.