Aspen Institute Executive Vice President Eric L. Motley Talks About Growing Up in Alabama

Eric L. Motley, executive vice president of the think tank The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of the new book, Madison Park: A Place of Hope (Zondervan, November 2017).
Eric L. Motley, executive vice president of the think tank The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of the new book, Madison Park: A Place of Hope (Zondervan, November 2017).

There’s something about overcoming enormous odds, starting from the bottom and working your way to the top that leaves a deep and long-lasting impression on people.

Eric L. Motley, who as a toddler was essentially abandoned by his parents and raised in a rural community founded by former slaves in Alabama, is one such story. Having nothing materially but having everything in terms of love and community support, Motley worked himself up to earning a Ph.D. and a position in the White House under former President George W. Bush. His life’s story is a living testament that the present doesn’t need to replicate the past.

Motley, who is now executive vice president of the think tank The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke to ChristianWeek about his new book, Madison Park: A Place of Hope (Zondervan, November 2017), and about the “debt of love” he owes to the people of Madison Park, Ala. The book is a tribute to this small black community where residents give their last dollar to help a neighbor in need and do so without expecting any recognition or reward in return. It was in this little known community of love, generosity, and “doing the right thing” that Motley grew up and one where he promised to never forget.

Below is a transcript of the interview with Motley, lightly edited for clarity.

ChristianWeek: You talk about racism throughout the book, gently interweaving it into your biography and that of Madison Park. I felt the tone about this subject was similar to how you described your father – no resentment, never lost hope in fairness, and without anger. Can you share your thoughts on the current national tone on racism and why your tone seems different?

Motley: I think for me it was less about race and more about grace and reconciliation and forgiveness. I’m not naïve enough to ignore the fact that we have enormous racial tension and stresses that challenge us societally. This is really a story about how a group of people, particularly my grandparents, always had hope. From the beginning of this community that was founded by a group of freed slaves in 1880. I mean their proposition was hope – things can be better and we have to find a better way. And so they wanted to create their own hope and they wanted to create a community where the members of that community could affirm hope and affirm faith and history that things would unfold and be better.

My grandparents were greatly concerned that I not develop resentment or anger because resentment and anger is a dangerous thing when one is trying to grow and experience the fullness of life. So for them it was important that I knew my history, the history of America and have an understanding of the complexity of our narratives, but at the same time that I never lost the sense of hope and the sense of expectation. And for them community is the embodiment of hope and spiritually to have hope in something that was unseen was very much part of their spiritual philosophy.

ChristianWeek: This sense of community – helping each other and those in need – was embedded in everything about Madison Park. How do you keep that heart now that you live far away in Washington, D.C., and have moved up the social and economic ladder?

Motley: The prayers that were taught, the Bible verses you learn, the names of people you grew up with never leave you. They are always with you. At the heart of community are those principles and those values and those relationships that always tie you to place and to the ideas of place even when you move away from place. They are hidden in your heart and mind even though they might not manifest themselves to others. And so I think for me Madison Park isn’t as much a place but an idea that has become so ingrained in who I am, it’s a part of my DNA, it’s a part of my thoughts, my words, my deeds. The idea of interdependency, the idea that we are all tied in this single garment of destiny. Those are ideas of just how I think.

And so wherever I go, Madison Park goes with me. With that comes the full awareness that seasons change and nothing ever remains the same. So I go back there. A mentor once said to me that is the accumulation of R.E.M. – that’s not rapid eye movement or the group – it’s relationship, experiences and memories.

And so for me I go back to Madison Park two to three times a year. I go back to visit my childhood friends who are there. I go back to the place I grew up even though the house is no longer in my family’s trust. I go back to visit my grandparents’ graves and lay flowers on their parents’ grave. And so the routine of visiting the place in heart and mind but also physically connects me to the place. And then the relationships. I stay in touch with the people there and I support the Sunday school program in my community. I was fortunate enough to get resources from various people in the town to go on some church trips and Christian conferences and so I now have the means to contribute back to that program so that other students can experience what I was allowed to experience when I was growing up there.

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SOURCE: Michelle Vu
ChristianWeek via Christian Post