Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


A story of “Unconditional” love: How “Papa Joe” Bradford’s inspiring true story inspired a movement and a movie

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Yes, one person can make a difference.  Joe Bradford grew up in poverty in a small country town west of Nashville where he lived with his mother, sister and grandmother. He rarely heard from his father. From those hard times, came still harder times — including a near fatal snakebite, a prison term (for computer hacking) and a desperate struggle with kidney disease.

And from those harder times, came more hard times. During his struggle with kidney disease, Joe experienced financial challenges and, with his wife Denise and kids, was forced to move into one of Nashville’s project communities. It was then that, as if to prove that (as the movie says) “It ain’t a dead end if it takes you somewhere you needed to go,” that he finally found his true calling.  It was a calling that led him and his wife to found Elijah’s Heart, a non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of underprivileged children.

I recently spoke with Bradford, affectionately known as Papa Joe by those familiar with his work, about his real-life journey — the journey that inspired the new film Unconditional (debuting in theaters this weekend). Here are some highlights from our conversation:

JWK:  Here you are. You and your wife have severe money problems — and you’re struggling with kidney disease. What was it that led you to take on the problems of poor kids in your neighborhood? I mean I barely manage to get through the day when things aren’t nearly that challenging.

PAPA JOE: Let’s just say I was put in a position where I wasn’t focusing on myself anymore. I was pretty much drawn into the lives of these kids. The Lord didn’t leave me a way out…Our hands were forced, so to speak, in a good way…When we first got to the projects, this (little deaf girl) came to our door, the first day…I didn’t know she was deaf…My wife Denise gave her a piece of candy and we found out there were about fifty kids on the street. Well, what happens when you give one child a piece of candy? She started telling her family and the other kids. Kids just started showing up on our doorstep. That’s how we were eventually put into ministry with these children. They were just coming. We started finding out about…their lives.

JWK: That led to Elijah’s Heart?

PAPA JOE: Elijah’s Heart came as a result helping these kids. When we first started helping the kids, this child that we knew, a good friend of our second child…I would walk my child to class, she was like in first grade. Her best friend (and her) father would walk to class with us. Well, they took a different direction home one evening and he was killed in front of his little girl…There was some crazy stuff happening (in the neighborhood) and (to counter that) we made a choir out of these children.  My wife’s a musician. We found out that they were hungry also. We were poor like they were but whatever we had we’d give to them. They were really hungry…We started seeking help for these kids outside the community — churches and stuff. We formed a 501(c)(3) to help us be more in a position to help the children and it expanded into a ministry where we helped kids all over the city.

JWK: So, you didn’t go out with the intent of starting a charitable organization for kids. The kids, more or less, came to you.

PAPA JOE: Right…It just happened.

JWK:  Where’s the name Elijah’s Heart come from?  Is it biblical?

PAPA JOE: It is biblical —  Malachi Chapter 4, Verses 5 and 6. It speaks of the heart of the father to the children and the children to the father. It particularly has to do with good parenthood. One of our biggest missions is to encourage people to be surrogate parents to fatherless children…We had another son at that time when we formed Elijah’s Heart and we named him Elijah…That’s where Elijah’s Heart came from –the heart of the surrogate parent helping all these fatherless children.

JWK: How long has Elijah’s Heart been in existence?

PAPA JOE: The organization has been in existence on paper since 2005. Of course, we were working with kids since the 1990’s.

JWK: You’re quite open about having a bout with the law in your younger years. You want to jail for computer hacking. Tell me about that.

PAPA JOE: Oh, yeah. I was one of the original computer hackers in the early eighties. I hacked into a restricted banking system. Most of them, of course, are restricted. Pretty much, it was on a dare. I was a cooperative student at Eastman Kodak. I was an engineering student and I was doing well. I worked for the systems  manager at Eastman Kodak and I, basically, learned the ins and outs of the computer. You know, at that time, the IBM mainframe was the computer, pretty much. So, I learned the weaknesses of the computer and how I became a hacker.

JWK: Did you steal anything?

PAPA JOE: Well, on a dare, I hacked into a bank. Basically,  I found the codes to the ATM system and I had to go get a card. I had to use a card to see if it worked. Unfortunately, it worked.

JWK: So, how did the movie Unconditional come about?

PAPA JOE: Jason Atkins (the producer)…had moved to town with his family…He was helping out the ministry and…he said they felt like there were supposed to do a little movie based on what Papa Joe does for kids.  I just sat down and told him that you probably (don’t want) to do a movie on me because my background wasn’t squeaky clean, far from it….He lit up like a light bulb. I thought what the heck is wrong with this guy?  (I told him) I had to go to prison and got into some terrible fights. I almost killed this guy. I was trying to protect someone. He felt like (that) would be cinematic.

JWK: Yeah, that all adds to the drama of the story.

PAPA JOE: It showed transformation.

JWK: You’re a producer on the film.

PAPA JOE: Yeah, I am. I’m a co-producer…I had to be in on the conception of the movie and, basically, the overall process of putting this thing together.

JWK: So, I take it the film’s title comes from God’s unconditional love.

PAPA JOE: It does. It most definitely does.

JWK: And I guess that also applies to how much God has brought you through in your own life.

PAPA JOE: I’ve been through a lot, John. I was almost killed by a poisonous snake. In prison, I was like a fish out of water. I (did a) non-violent crime but I was thrown in with violent offenders and I had to fight. And getting kidney disease…I was on a machine nine hours a day at first — for like 15 months.

JWK: Was this while in prison?

PAPA JOE: No, this was after prison.  After prison, I moved to Nashville because I was born in Nashville…On the first day of a temporary job, I met (my wife) Denise. And, pretty much, the Lord used her to change my life.

JWK: Are you gonna stay in the movie business after this. Or is this a one-shot deal just to promote your organization and your message?

PAPA JOE: From my perspective, the movie is just to promote who Papa Joe really is…So, we’re working with plans connect organizations all over the country to help stop child hunger…This movie is a big tool for that.

JWK: What’s in the future for Elijah’s Heart?

PAPA JOE: If you look on our website under What We Do, there’s a project called Walk of Love…to help under-resourced communities.

JWK: And your wife is a major force behind all this, as well as yourself.

PAPA JOE: All of this was her idea. Yeah, she’s a major force behind this.

JWK: Do they call her Mama Denise?

PAPA JOE: We have seven kids. I don’t know if you knew that. So, obviously, we love children. After the first two children, the doctor said I probably wouldn’t have kids again after the transplant because all of that medication was supposedly gonna to make me sterile. But, of course, my wife and God didn’t get that memo.  We had five more children.  So, she loves kids. She’s the mother of all these children.

JWK: What are the age ranges of your own kids?

PAPA JOE: We have an 18-year-old boy, a  16-year-old girl, an 11-year-old boy, a seven-year-0ld boy, a four-year-old boy, a three-year-old girl and a one-year-old girl.

JWK: Is the oldest boy drawn toward continuing your ministry?

PAPA JOE: He’s a very good musician — keyboard, guitar, drums. He’s also is pretty good at producing music. He wants to be a music producer.

JWK: I could see this movie as a potential TV series too.

PAPA JOE: Well, whatever the Lord’s opening up…I could see something like that.

JWK:  Do you ever get called up by people wanting pizza?

PAPA JOE: People do call me Papa John. I would love to have their pizza, but it’s not me.

Note: The Lord has already opened up several avenues for Papa John to get out the message of God’s unconditional love.  Besides the film, he has an autobiography out called A Walk of Love. Through the Premiere Speakers Bureau, he also goes around the country talking about his personal story, the needs of at-risk children and the power of God’s love. Meanwhile, the Unconditional story is available in a novelized version and a Bible study guide. For kids, there’s Firebird , a picture book based on a children’s title referenced in the movie.

For more info on the film, you can go to its Facebook page or its  website. There you’ll also find an ACT page where you can learn how to become involved in child-help organizations in your area. For more info on Elijah’s Heart visit the website elijahsheart.com or papajoe.org.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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