Known as “Papa Joe” to the hundreds of inner-city families he helps, Joe Bradford has a powerful testimony that reads like a movie. This month his story comes to the big screen via Unconditional—a film as inspiring as Papa Joe’s ministry.
Act I: The Setup
Joe Bradford was seething, despite being surrounded by 60 giggling, playful children enjoying their lunches. He sat alone at a table, mentally rehashing the heated exchange he had just had with a drug-addicted mother whose abusiveness had caused her young daughter’s eyes to be swollen shut. As he pondered the heinous events—and the equally horrific stories behind most of the neighborhood children around him—the girl’s older sister approached him. No older than 7 or 8, her eyes held a distinct sincerity about them when she asked a question that took Bradford off-guard: “Will you be my daddy?”
Seconds later, another little girl asked the same thing, followed by a young boy. Before Bradford knew it, almost 30 children had descended on him with this unusual request.
“I’m thinking, ‘Are they joking with me? Did they plan this?’ They were actually looking at me seriously, wondering. They didn’t even ask me what my qualifications were,” he says jokingly. Overwhelmed by the circumstances, Bradford did the only thing he could at the moment: He embraced the children and told them he loved them.
Becoming a father was a misnomer to Bradford, who was raised by a single mother and felt abandoned most of his adolescence.
“My father left my mother when I was in the womb,” he explains. “I grew up feeling abandoned by my father. I never thought I could be an example of a papa to anybody.”
The idea of becoming a father to thousands, then, was asking the impossible of Bradford. But that night, in biblical fashion, his life and name was forever changed.
“I felt like the Lord told me in my spirit that He was changing my name from just Joe Bradford to Papa Joe,” he explains. Though he felt unprepared to be a dad given his past, Bradford took the Lord’s words as a divine commissioning.
That was in 2005. Today the 51-year-old is affectionately known as “Papa Joe” by the young lives he’s changed in the projects of Nashville, Tenn., in a state where 40 percent of children live in fatherless homes according to tndads.org He and his wife, Denise, are surrogate parents to some of the city’s most underprivileged children, while their ministry, Elijah’s Heart, works with hundreds of at-risk kids and their parents, providing food, clothing, laptops, uniforms and tutoring programs. Most importantly to Papa Joe, they serve as positive role models while giving these kids the one thing most of their fathers don’t: time.
Act II: The Turning Point
Papa Joe certainly never dreamed of becoming a father figure. Yet even more, he and Denise never imagined they would be forced to live in the Preston Taylor projects in downtown Nashville. The middle-class couple had done well until Bradford discovered he had kidney disease in 1997. His condition deteriorated rapidly, forcing him to be on a dialysis machine eight hours a day. After three years, his battle against the disease culminated with a life-saving kidney transplant.
Unfortunately the effort to save Bradford’s life also cost his family everything they owned. Booted from their home and completely broke from the insurmountable medical bills, the Bradfords had little choice but to find housing in the projects. They dreaded moving their three elementary-aged children to a crime-ridden area, but a series of events soon proved they were divinely sent.
The first day after they moved into Preston Taylor, a deaf and mute girl stood on their front porch and just stared at Joe. Not knowing how to respond, he called Denise, who brought her a Starburst candy. The little girl took it and scurried off, only to return with her brothers. By the end of the week, 50 of the neighborhood children had flocked to the couple’s door in search of candy. The Bradfords soon realized they needed to offer more than just sweets.
“I was the type of person who, when going through those neighborhoods, I would lock the doors,” Denise admits. “I’m the last person who would ever choose to move there. But when we got there and started to see what was going on, I found that our hearts were arrested.”
God obviously had a plan for them in Nashville, but the exact strategy wasn’t clear yet. They knew the kids not only needed resources, they also needed to be influenced by adults who cared for them. Having directed choirs for 20 years—Joe plays the saxophone and Denise the piano—it was natural for the couple to use music to spend time with the children.
“We figure we can use what we have—our gifts, our talents—to shine the light of Jesus in these neighborhoods and bring out something that is in them that they don’t know,” Denise explains. “Everybody doesn’t think they sing, but everybody can sing. So whatever your gift is, use it.”
They started Unity Choir, which has attracted hundreds of kids and has been featured at the Tennessee National Day of Prayer ceremony for four consecutive years. They also began A.C.T.I.O.N. (Anointed Christian Theater Inspiring Our Nations), a series of dramatic plays performed at theaters throughout Tennessee. Through the choir and plays, the group highlights the needs of impoverished children living throughout America and raises money to help inner-city families.
Elijah’s Heart also spearheads an online education program that offers basic resources and private tutoring to help kids become academically successful.