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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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


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

February 17, 2023

Smiles greet Pamela Atkins when she hands out gloves and hats to those experiencing homelessness. (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.

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.)

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)

“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.”

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, Retired Mission Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: the Mother Teresa of Utah

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jonathan and Emily Seitz, Mission co-workers serving in Taiwan, World Mission, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Robyn Davis Sekula, VP, Marketing Communications, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

Dear Lord, we praise your name for sending us your Holy Spirit to inspire and guide the church. We thank you for sending those who enrich the church, empower our worship, enliven us and bring us hope. Amen.