By REBECCA WALLACE
It's common for an elected official to publicly thank God at some point in his or her career, but many of Matt Westmoreland's constituents may not know that the Post 2 At-Large member of the Atlanta City Council, can actually point to a very specific church event where it became clear to him that he was called to be a public servant, and one who works specifically to help those less fortunate than him.
With grandparents attending Peachtree Road UMC since they moved to Atlanta in the early 1970s, Matt was born into one of the church’s active, multi-generational families. His mother was involved with the music ministry and directed the children’s choir. Still today, Matt feels such a strong connection with his grandmother over church that he goes to sit with her, now 95 years old, in her home each Sunday morning so they can experience the service together, though live streaming on a computer screen.
Like many youth, Matt went through a phase when he would “skip out” of Sunday School and youth group. He questioned it all. It didn’t help that he was the only person in his school who went to his church.
“Then I was asked to play in a Christian band," Matt recalls, "and that was my re-connection with the youth group.” That re-connection then led him to participate in the church’s mission trips.
“At its foundation, Peachtree Road has taught me through outreach and mission work that we are one of the most fortunate and monetarily blessed congregations in the state,” explains Matt. “And with that comes a huge responsibility -- to work hard to understand obstacles people deal with and to do our part to remove those obstacles.”
When Matt was 16 years old, he participated with his church in a Habitat for Humanity build in South Atlanta near University Avenue. Matt explains that it was the first time he’d ever been in that part of the city.
“It was the first instance when I was connected to a different part of the city, and certainly the first time I understood what the phrase, ‘underserved community’ means. It was an eye-opening experience,” says Matt. “My church showed me that it was my job to help make other people’s lives better.”
It just so happens that that community Matt visited as a teenager is served by Carver High School, and six years after that experience, Matt began teaching there.
“My path certainly hasn’t been easy – even as a teacher," said Matt. "I often felt like I was pushing against the ocean… But I loved teaching.”
Matt took that love for teaching and the relationships he made to serve on the Atlanta School Board, and his career as a public official began.
“I can tie a lot of that – both my path and my drive – back to my church," he said.
In March 2018, Matt attended the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Coalition) Women pilgrimage to Birmingham with other members of his church, Cascade UMC, Ben Hill UMC, Glenn Memoria UMC and others.
“I will never forget that experience. The South is a complex place. Racial history makes it more complicated,” he explains. “To be a part of this experience, with a group like that… And to go as a UNITED Methodists, in a mix of ‘Buckhead meets Southside,’ with rich histories, to walk together…, it was incredible.”
Afterward, members from Peachtree Road and Cascade UMCs met in small groups once a month for the next year to discuss difficult issues and how to resolve them.
Matt sees that work with the church directly impacting how he serves on the Atlanta City Council.
“Atlanta has serious challenges, and I believe we can only address them by intentionally speaking about them and to each other," he said. "My church helped me to figure that out.”
Rebecca Wallace is a communications consultant (and United Methodist) who lives in Atlanta.