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Blog / How a Small Town Can Teach Love and Faith: An Interview with Eric L. Motley

How a Small Town Can Teach Love and Faith: An Interview with Eric L. Motley

Eric L. MotleyWelcome to Madison Park, a small community in Alabama founded by freed slaves in 1880. And meet Eric Motley, a native son who came of age in this remarkable place where constant lessons in self-determination, hope, and faith taught him everything he needed for his journey to the White House.

Bible Gateway interviewed Eric L. Motley about his book, Madison Park: A Place of Hope (Zondervan, 2017).

[Watch Eric Motley’s Facebook Live Q&A about Madison Park]
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Why did you write this memoir?

Eric L. Motley: I never thought that my personal journey was interesting enough to broadcast, but over the years I’ve been exposed to an increasing number of narratives that would suggest an embattled American experience, and I feel called to offer another perspective. The inspiration for this book comes from the desire to celebrate an idea, an American spirit, a people. A group of freed slaves founded Madison Park in 1880 in Montgomery, Alabama and decided to make America work for them. In the process they developed a moral communal vocabulary with great power, but its story has never been told. There’s no single narrative for the African-American male, or a citizen of a rural community, or any American for that matter. In an increasingly polarized society, where the concept of community seems almost alien, I now have the courage and inspiration to tell a story about a place and a people that manifested some true and tangible aspects of the American Dream. There are two narratives—my own story and the history of this special place—but they’re intimately interwoven.

Tell about your creative process? How long have you been working on the book?

Eric L. Motley: I’ve always kept diaries and commonplace books. Memory has been a centering force in my development, and recording observations, experiences, and reflections has been a part of my daily exercise of learning for all of my life. But writing Madison Park required a level of concentration and focus that extended beyond my “miscellanies.”

I decided to approach it in a very unconventional way. Instead of starting off with a publisher or an agent, I decided that I’d go the route of writing, and writing, and rewriting. The end goal was not producing a book that could be sold; the motivation was telling my story and the story of my people without constraint and telling it to myself first. For me this was first and foremost an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual exercise in recollection.

Also, the very nature of a memoir requires a type of honesty and forthrightness that’s not always easily achieved. As for me, there were a lot of emotional and psychological boxes that I had long sealed and put away in the attic of my mind and heart. In some instances, I’d put the manuscript in a drawer for extended periods of time, until I was ready to go where I knew I needed to go, in order to reveal a more honest me. Writing comes naturally and quickly; it’s the rewriting that takes time. I produced over 500 pages. Then I decided it was time to get an editor to help me trim the excesses and to find the soul of my creation.

You write about “the burden of gratitude.” Explain what you mean by this?

Eric L. Motley: I think all of us live with a bit of regret: regret for not always allowing our feelings and expressions to be manifested, regret for not always having acted on generous impulses or inspirations. When I look back, I’m often disturbed by the thought that there were a good number of people who significantly gave of themselves for my betterment whom I never thanked or to whom I never adequately conveyed my gratitude. Some were strangers who flashed in and out of my life, and others were neighbors, friends, and teachers, many of whom did not live long enough to see their investment in me realized. I often find myself wondering if they had any real sense of my appreciation. One must constantly cultivate a sense of gratitude; it’s borne of continuous reflection and recognition of one’s own poverty and deep need for others.

Why do you credit the community of Madison Park, Alabama for instilling values such as hope, self-determination, and generosity within you?

Eric L. Motley: As a child I grew up among people trying to make ends meet. By societal standards we were all poor, but we never surrendered to the idea of living in statistics; we lived in community. The blessed ties of faith bound us to one another. You planted a bit extra to share with those who had no land to grow their own food; you cared for the elderly; you helped neighbors in their time of need—never waiting for them to ask for assistance. There was no rule book; but the guiding precepts and biblical teachings defined our moral conduct.

The founders and subsequent generations built a community on bedrock values of knowing your neighbor’s name, lending a helping hand, and supporting each other through life’s ups and down. Every aspect of our common life was imbued with a sense of ‘we, not me.’ Alienation is difficult in a place where we all believed that we were all responsible for one another.

At an early age I was taught to believe that there’s goodness in everyone, and that, whether or not we realize it, the God in each of us yearns to shine outwardly. My grandparents were pragmatists whose realism was always tempered with hope. They instilled within me a self-perpetuating sense of optimism and hopefulness. I have come to believe along with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that nothing is ever understood in its immediate context of history; therefore, we’re saved by hope, faith, and love.

How and when were you introduced to the Bible? How have you relied on the Bible throughout your life experiences?

Eric L. Motley: I have no recollection of there ever being a time in my life in which I was not a Christ-follower. I didn’t have a “Sycamore tree” or “Damascus Road” experience. In many ways I was born and nurtured into my faith. There is a wonderful line from the book of Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

My grandparents were people of serious faith who daily exercised the discipline of prayers and reflection. They sought in everything to allow their faith to permeate their outward actions. I also found wisdom in the instruction of Sunday School teachers and the ministers of my church. So through early exposure and consistent example I came to know the path by which I have chosen to travel.

But ‘chosen’ is a very important idea to me, because at some point you try to make sense things given your own capacity to reason and analyze. You begin to call into question what you once surrendered to as a child. Inquiry is important to me, so I’ve held up my faith to the light of reason—and the watermark of Bible teaching is fully seen. So, I believe because I was first taught to do so, and I furthermore believe because I’ve examined my beliefs and have found them worthy of credence. At every turning along the way I’ve been reassured that I’m on the right path.

How did you move from your humble beginning to become special assistant to President George W. Bush?

Eric L. Motley: My journey has been one of both grace and gratitude. I exhibited some intellectual potential at a very early age. My grandparents had a guiding desire for me to go to college—to be the first in our family to pursue higher education> And a considerable number of people appreciated my appetite and their aspirations for me. I grew up in a community; and people took an interest in me because I seemed interested. All along the way individuals helped me to realize my potential. They also helped me to become more self-aware of my capabilities and shortcomings. Sunday school teachers, ministers, school teachers, YMCA directors and staff, neighbors: all guided me, tutored me, helped show me the way forward. My curiosity—part DNA and partly inspired by my grandparents—opened me up to discovery and wonderment and the unknown. With the help of a lot of people I got a good education and my appetite for growing and discovery quickened. Finally, with the help of a lot of great mentors I’ve been able to have a very fulfilling professional life; and personal and spiritual life.

What lessons have you learned in letting “the past be the past”?

Eric L. Motley: I use the parable of the Prodigal Son to illustrate the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in my own life. There’s no way forward unless you surrender to the fullness of God’s grace. There you’ll find newness of life. The same is asked of us as we engage with our fellow travelers. I deny myself the joy of a restored relationship with my mother if I continue to cling to the things of the past that separated us. “Morning by morning new mercies we see,” should serve as a daily invocation to each of us.

What do you hope your readers will take with them from your book?

Eric L. Motley: That in a very politically and culturally polarized society where we’re daily reminded of all of the things that separate us, we need to refocus ourselves on the things that tie us together. I hope this book will remind people of the power and importance of community—what can happen when people support each other, know each other, affirm each other, and create safety nets for one another. No man is an island unto himself. This is a story about community, about the human spirit, the American spirit, about the promise of hope.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Eric L. Motley: There are too many to just name one, but at an early age I committed to memory Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” What an affirmation of faith; not just for bad times, but for all times.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Eric L. Motley: I use Bible Gateway often to find a passage, examine, and study it devotionally. It’s a great resource, and in a very fast world it’s become a frequently used one.

Bio: Eric Motley grew up in Alabama, the son of adoptive parents who raised him in the freed slave’s town of Madison Park, Alabama. From this beginning in the black community he rose to become a special assistant to President George W. Bush. Eric is Executive Vice President of the think tank The Aspen Institute (@AspenInstitute) which on a national and international level discusses today’s global issues that face the United States and her partners across the world.

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Filed under Books, Interviews