First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City’s ‘Mother Teresa’

Woman insists she’s not a saint, just living her faith

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today

Among the many selfless acts Pamela Atkinson has coordinated over the years has been a Christmas feast for those in need in Salt Lake City. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Atkinson)

By extending an invitation to love everyone no matter what, as Jesus did, Pamela Atkinson, who grew up in the slums of London, has helped shape the life of First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. It has even earned her the nickname “the Mother Teresa of Utah.”

Several years ago, with the holidays approaching, Atkinson was serving dinner to her friends who were experiencing homelessness.

As she asked them what they would like for Christmas dinner, the room got quiet. Then one person said, “Hey, Pamela, what if we have a steak dinner?” As laughter and even disbelief filled the room, Atkinson replied, “Well, why not?”

“And then everybody cheered,” she said.

Atkinson is a little embarrassed at being called Mother Teresa, or even Saint Pamela, which is what First Presbyterian Church members call her.

“I don’t live in poverty; I have enough to live on,” said Atkinson, “but I’ve learned to say thank you, because I love to talk about the work I’m doing here, which is mainly being the hands of Jesus Christ.”

Remembering the cheering from those wanting a steak dinner for Christmas, Atkinson immediately went to a friend in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’d been helpful in finding financing over the years for her various ministries of care for the homeless and refugee communities in the city.

Hearing of her request for an 1,100-person steak dinner, Atkinson said he laughed before saying, “I suppose you want potatoes and bacon, too.”

In December 2021, Atkinson and 100 volunteers once again served steak dinner for Christmas. For everyone — those serving and those experiencing homelessness — it has become the favorite meal of the year.

All things are possible

How it came together doesn’t surprise anyone who knows Atkinson. “People want to get involved, they want to help, they write her a check,” said the Rev. Jamie White, who was installed in August as First Presbyterian Church’s first woman pastor in its 150-year history.

When Atkinson came to Salt Lake City as vice president of mission service for Intermountain Healthcare — she retired in 2002 — she drove around the city with bags of dog food, mittens and socks in her car to share with her homeless friends. (Yes, they are friends, not strangers on the street.)

“She was as comfortable pouring coffee at an underpass on Saturday morning as she was at a high-end fundraiser on Friday night for her work,” White said.

Realizing how many people in Utah belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Atkinson began to attend those houses of worship in Salt Lake City. She also made sure she visited communities of faith in every religious tradition so that every person who worshiped in the city was aware of the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

“I believe as all faiths learn and understand the work of caring for those on the margins, the differences in belief will take care of themselves,” she said.

Utah has a homeless trust fund where providers can apply for financial assistance to help care for those they serve. A few years ago, to honor Atkinson, Utah’s speaker of the house decided it should be named after her. So now, when residents of Utah fill out their taxes, they are asked if they want to donate money to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund.

“I’ve made friends with people in the legislature who respect what I’m doing,” Atkinson said. “When I come asking for money or approval of a bill, I have facts that put a human face on the data I present.”

Respect goes a long way

Even when legislators have drastically different opinions than hers, she always respects that they are the state’s representatives. Those who know her say part of her genius is her way of being with folks in Utah. In the midst of extreme polarization from right to left, she calls on people to recognize their common humanity found in each person.

“Everyone feels seen and known by her,” White said. “No matter how conservative or liberal, or how much money they have or don’t have, people want her in the room.”

Atkinson acknowledges that over the years she has gained credibility in a variety of circles. In retirement she has served in various capacities with the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee, the Refugee Advisory Board and the Utah Coalition Against Pornography. As special adviser to the governor, she’s in charge of Utah’s Faith Leaders Luncheon. In 2022, more than 80 leaders attended, representing 28 different faiths, which shows, Atkinson said, “how diverse Utah is.”

Before she left Intermountain Healthcare, Atkinson began joining others from First Presbyterian Church to serve and be with her friends experiencing homelessness during weekly meals at the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall.

Smiles greet Pamela Atkins when she hands out gloves and hats to those experiencing homelessness. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Atkinson)

As they were serving, one church member came up with an idea to start Pamela’s Closet. Now two rooms in the church basement are full of new and gently used clothing — and people can also donate to the closet. So, when Atkinson gets low on certain items for those experiencing homelessness, like socks, she can replenish her supply, which she still drives around with in her car.

Church members like Dr. Stephanie Silas say the greatest gift she receives from Atkinson is seeing that somehow by touching the lives of others — especially those on the margins — you are getting closer to Jesus.

Fifteen years ago, Silas, a rheumatologist, retired early so that she could spend time with her boys who were growing up too fast. Looking for volunteer opportunities, she began working at Utah’s Fourth Street Clinic.

Now named after Atkinson, it provides high-quality health care and support for those experiencing homelessness.

“The work we do honors her. It’s a wonderful perspective to go through life seeing the opportunities we are provided to assist and love our neighbors,” Silas said. “I’m thrilled Pamela is at our church.”

Atkinson said she stayed at First Presbyterian Church throughout the years because she likes the ways her congregation talks about taking the church outside the building’s walls.

“Seeing the larger community outside is part of us is very rewarding,” she said. “That’s what younger people are looking for today. So, we are providing numerous community service projects for people.”

No slowing down

Atkinson has been retired for more than 20 years now. But, still no one knows her age. White said she has talked with Atkinson about slowing down. During those conversations Atkinson told White that when she talks with God about this, she says, “Lord, make your will known, and make sure I know what it is.”

“But if you want to give God a good chuckle, tell God you have plans of your own. It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Sometimes I’m very tired, but if it’s important — and it always is — I hear a holy shout, ‘Go do it, Pamela!’”

Once Atkinson knows what it is she’s supposed to do, she’s not at all tired. By the time she gets in the car, she feels refreshed — and renewed. “And I thank the Lord, always knowing that if I don’t do something, God would find someone else to do it.”

During the pandemic, Atkinson was working with providers serving lower-income people and those experiencing homelessness in rural areas in Utah, and she noticed how depressed people were getting. They wanted to help, she said, but there was such a lack of resources.

“I began to understand what they mean by compassion fatigue,” she said. “But I call it something else.” So, when her friends say, “Pamela, you look like you’re about to lose your emotional bankruptcy,” she realizes it’s time to throw a party.

“We’ll have a potluck and just talk, share and laugh, which goes on sometimes until midnight. That’s how I get filled up again — that and my prayer life,” she said.


Those experiencing homelessness are often surprised to see a gourmet steak dinner being served to them. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Atkinson)

As for that other party that has become famous among those experiencing homelessness — the Christmas steak dinner — the steaks are now cooked at the five-star Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City and then delivered to the soup kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul. Everything else, including pie for dessert, is cooked on-site.

“When you walk into the middle of it, it’s organized chaos,” Atkinson said. “But it’s the most wonderful time. People tell me to sign them up for next year because it just made their Christmas.”

Atkinson has come to learn the truth in the wisdom that when you do something for someone else, you’re helping yourself.

“A lot of people don’t realize that a small act of caring and kindness can make a huge difference in someone’s life. When people discover this, it’s like getting a high without drugs,” she said. As for being a saint like Mother Teresa, she rebuts that, saying, “I’m just striving to become more Christ-like.” That’s something Mother Teresa would have said as well.

Paul Seebeck is a writer and a PC(USA) pastor. 

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