“When I get outta bed in the morning, I'm on one mission. I believe that there shouldn't be any children that go to bed hungry, any children that are just oppressed like this.”
Joe Bradford – better known to his community as Papa Joe – is the co-founder and leader of Nashville non-profit and Feed the Children partner Elijah’s Heart. Their mission is to show love and bring aid to underprivileged children and their families.
Joe knows first-hand what it’s like to be underprivileged in America. His mom worked hard to raise him while working full time to make ends meet. Their family was extremely poor.
“When I was a child, I noticed how hard my mother struggled. She worked for a boot company. She went there eight hours a day, five days a week because I did not have a dad, and she'd come home worn out. And I always told my mom someday I'm going to build you a house, I'm gonna take care of you and you're gonna be able to quit this job.”
Joe was a smart kid. He had a full scholarship to college and studied engineering. But in his final semester, he was caught engaging in computer hacking and sent to prison. In his words, “I was on top of the world, and then I was incarcerated, so I hit the bottom, the very bottom.” After his incarceration, Joe was homeless. He had a temporary job doing bulletins for churches, but at night, he slept in his car.
The church community was a good place for Joe. He met his wife, Denise, through their shared work with children’s choirs. But the good times didn’t last. Joe developed a serious kidney disease that required a transplant, which forced him onto disability. Without both of their incomes, Joe and Denise couldn’t even afford an apartment. They moved into an inner-city community and started living in the projects.
The first day that they moved in, a little girl came to the door and asked for food. Then more children started to show up. There were 50 kids living on their street, and all of them were hungry. Joe started getting to know his new neighborhood, and the level of poverty and need laid a burden on his heart.
“I just felt like even though I was a man with nothing, I have to do something, and that's what we did.”
Joe and Denise started canvassing the community to see how many people there were in need, and during that process, they met a worker from Feed the Children. That day, nearly fourteen years ago, was the start of the partnership between Elijah’s Heart and Feed the Children. Since then, the relationship has only grown stronger.
“I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, Feed the Children, as a company and individuals, have a heart for what we do.”
When Elijah’s Heart moved to their current Nashville community center, the city was ranked 2nd in the nation for murder rate growth by the FBI. Most of the killings were taking place on the south side of town – right in the neighborhood where Elijah’s Heart had set up shop. Joe has never encountered trouble on site, despite five gangs operating in his area, because even gang members have kids who need food. It’s still a rough neighborhood, but Joe says he’s starting to see the wind of change.
“Since we've been here, we've seen a change in the community because of relationship. Every week we're doing something that builds relationship, we're doing something with food, we're doing something with clothes, you name it. … And so now when you see people that originally did not even wanna look our way, they'll come up and say, "Hey, how you doin'?" give us a hug, yeah. It's changed the whole atmosphere of the community.”
Joe believes that there’s a clear connection between crime and need, and between criminal behavior and hunger. He believes that people must have their basic needs met in order for communities to thrive. Consistency is the key to building trust, and consistent support is what enables families to move from hardship to stability.
“One of the challenges is when a parent has to make a choice. Okay, I've gotta pay my bills, I've gotta pay for utility costs in some of the communities, okay. And so am I gonna feed my child, am I gonna pay for the water bill? …If you just did research on the crime level during school breaks, you're gonna see a spike in the crime level because parents are gonna feed their kids. They're gonna get the food some kinda way.”
The core of Joe’s ministry is love for the people Elijah’s Heart serves, no matter their origins or circumstances. He describes his work as “flooding the community with people who have love in their heart.” The relationships that his work forges help to provide a stable environment for children to grow and thrive, and someday help others in their turn.
“I believe in my heart, and I've always believed this, that everybody that comes through that door and everybody we go out the door to serve, we need to treat them with dignity and respect, and the whole community adheres to that, they know that's what we're about, and I love it, man.”