The children in Nashville’s public housing call him “Papa Joe,” and, as the name implies, consider him to be the father figure they lack at home.
He’s completely fine with that, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Papa Joe” Bradford and his team of volunteers give underprivileged children from seemingly hopeless situations the hope they desperately need. They feed them, clothe them, encourage them and share the Gospel with them.
Bradford says he’s simply putting his faith into action, and on Sept. 21, moviegoers can get a peek into his life with the movie “Unconditional,” which was inspired by his life and was funded and produced by two Christian men — Jason Atkins and J. Wesley Legg — who had a desire for more wholesome movies that will impact not only the church but the public at large. It was screened at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference and is the first film from Harbinger Media Partners, which Atkins and Legg formed.
The film had a budget of $2 million, which is small by Hollywood standards but significant when compared to more recent films that have been at least partially marketed to churches. “Courageous,” for instance, had a $1 million budget, and “Fireproof” $500,000.
Like Courageous, Unconditional’s larger budget is evident on the screen, from the acting to the sets to the production quality. It will open in about 300 theaters.
Unconditional stars Michael Ealy, who plays Bradford, and Lynn Collins, who plays Samantha Crawford, a downtrodden woman whom Bradford helps after her husband is murdered. Crawford is questioning her will to live but finds hope in watching “Papa Joe” love the children in his neighborhood.
Although some of the events in the movie are fictional, most of the events about Bradford are actually true, he said. He really did serve time in prison — in real life, for hacking into a computer bank — and he really did nearly kill a man while behind bars (he was in prison for 18 months). Once out of prison, in real life and in the movie, Bradford moved into Nashville’s government housing — the “projects,” he calls them — where he was burdened by the brokenness of the people around him and the innocent children who had witnessed events that most adults never see. He personally knew of a little girl whose father was murdered — right in front of her. He knew of another girl whose face was bruised from her mother’s beatings.
“We started seeing the abuse and the crazy stuff happening with these children,” Bradford told Baptist Press.
Bradford and his wife had two small children, so they got to know the kids in the community well. One day a little girl came to their house, and his wife gave her a piece of candy. Soon, the rest of the neighborhood kids were in his yard, wanting a treat.
“A piece of candy led to all these children coming to our doorstep,” Bradford said. “Mothers started dropping off kids at our doorstep. I don’t know if they thought we were a daycare or what, but it was crazy. And we just started loving on these kids, and we made a choir out of them.”
The choir was a natural fit, because Bradford plays the saxophone and his wife the keyboard, and they had served as worship leaders in churches.
Bradford and his wife wanted to feed all the children but they couldn’t afford it.
“We started asking people for help for these children — to the point that my wife had this crazy idea that we would take fliers all over our community and see who needed help with food,” he said. “We didn’t have the funds or the food, but when we got the telephone calls we would go out, take a team and hustle and try to find help for these children.”
Eventually, he and his wife formed a ministry, “Elijah’s Heart,” that has 30 regular volunteers, all with the goal of helping under-served children. They named the choir “Unity,” and it has sung for organizations and events throughout Nashville, including National Day of Prayer observances. And they and the volunteers conduct “Walk of Love” strolls through the poorest neighborhoods, giving away free food and supplies. Everything is funded by private donations.
Nearly every child they serve, Bradford said, is fatherless, looking for a father figure. Bradford got his nickname during a choir rehearsal when a girl walked up to him and asked, “Will you be my daddy?”
“I thought she was just kidding with me. But another girl in the choir heard her and said, ‘Will you be my daddy?’ Before you knew it I was surrounded by most of the choir and these kids were looking up saying, ‘Will you be my daddy?’ I went home and prayed over it, and I believe the Lord changed my name to Papa Joe that day, and I came back and told them, ‘All of you can call me Papa Joe.'”
The need for fathers and father figures in the inner city is tremendous, he said.
“The majority of dropouts in high school come from fatherless homes. There are various statistics that show you the plight and the result of fatherless children, because they don’t have the male encouragement. They don’t have the figure of stability. They don’t get the time that a father provides. A surrogate parent is the way we help fill that need, to a degree.”
Asked where fatherlessness would rank among America’s problems, Bradford said he would place it in the top three.
“That’s because the root of so many of our problems is because the family unit is incomplete,” said Bradford, who has penned an autobiography, “A Walk of Love.”
The movie wasn’t Bradford’s idea. That credit goes to Atkins, one of the producers, who was inspired after serving alongside Bradford and hearing his life story. Bradford said he hopes churches will get behind the film, and he wants people to walk out of the theater desiring to put their faith into action. The movie’s website, UnconditionaltheMovie.com, includes an “Act” tab where moviegoers can learn of organizations that help needy children.
“I want it to ignite a fire in their heart to practice Christ’s love — not just to speak it or say it, but to actually practice the love of Christ,” Bradford said. “That’s basically 1 John 3:18 — that we don’t just love with our tongue or speech but in deed.”