“When I get out of 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 nonprofit Elijah’s Heart, a longtime community partner of Feed the Children. His group’s mission is to bring aid and show love to underprivileged children, their families and the community around them.
The neighborhood Joe’s adopted could use some love. With over 800 homes, it’s the largest inner-city housing project in the state of Tennessee. Sadly, it’s no stranger to violence. When Elijah’s Heart moved its operating center there, Nashville was ranked second in the nation for its murder-growth rate. Most of the killings took place on the city’s south side – right where Joe had set up shop.
As he works actively to make sure families there have enough food – he spends a lot of time knocking on doors personally – Joe told us he’s never had any trouble in all the years he’s been there, despite five gangs operating in his area.
“I just believe that’s the grace of God,” he said. He admitted, though, that he gets some of the gang members’ respect because it’s sometimes their own kids who need food.
When we caught up with Papa Joe most recently, it was to provide the supplies for one of the occasional door-to-door distribution efforts Elijah’s Heart stages known as a “Walk of Love.” For these events, scores of volunteers descend upon the neighborhood to deliver boxes of food and essential household items directly to area residents’ homes. This particular “Walk” was an ambitious group effort supported by a partnership between Feed the Children and the Lynnda Speer Foundation. Once their work was done, Joe’s volunteers had distributed roughly 72 tons of food and essentials – that it took four semi-trucks to deliver – to approximately 1,600 food-insecure families.
One local resident who received supplies from this Walk of Love, DeeDee, is a single mother of a baby girl with a disability. When we talked to her, she told us she definitely appreciated the extra help.
“When money is low and times are hard, those food boxes Feed the Children contributes – it really goes a long way,” she said.
Joe knows that it’s moms like DeeDee who play a special role in binding the community together. He understands that when you lift people up, everybody wins, and the sense of wanting to pass on the goodwill spreads. Everyone grows stronger when they realize they have a stake in their neighborhood’s growth together.
“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.”
One of the Walk of Love volunteers we talked to described Elijah’s Heart – and Joe – in more glowing terms: “Papa Joe does exactly what Jesus does. He takes care of the lost, the hungry, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.” * Joe wasn’t always “Papa Joe.” Growing up, he knew firsthand what it’s like to be underprivileged in America. His mom worked hard to raise him. Though she worked full-time to make ends meet, her family was extremely poor. But Joe was a smart kid. He earned a full scholarship to college and studied engineering. In his final semester, though, he was caught hacking computers and was 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 he served his time, Joe was homeless. He had a temporary job doing bulletins for churches, but at night he slept in his car.
Working at churches was a good move for Joe. In fact, he met his wife, Denise, through their shared work with children’s choirs, and life started looking up after they married. But the good times didn’t last: Joe developed a serious kidney disease that required a transplant, and this hard reality forced him onto disability. Without the benefit of their double income, 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 after they moved in, a little girl came to the door and asked for food. Then more children started to show up. It turned out 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 hunger laid a burden on his heart.
“I just felt like even though I was a man with nothing, I had to do something. And that's what we did.”
Joe and Denise started canvassing the community to see how many people needed help. As they did, they met one of our staff workers. That day, nearly fourteen years ago, marked 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.” The core of Joe’s ministry is love for the people Elijah’s Heart serves, no matter their origins or circumstances. It’s still a rough neighborhood, but Joe says he’s starting to see a kind of shift in attitude at work.
“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 want to look our way, they'll come up and say, "Hey, how you doin'?" and give us a hug. Yeah, it's changed the whole atmosphere of the community.”
Joe believes there’s a clear connection between crime and need, as well as between hunger and criminal behavior. “People will feed their kids anyway they can,” he says. But in order for communities to thrive, he believes, people must have their basic needs met. From there, consistency becomes the key to building trust, and consistent support lets families move from hardship to stability.
The relationships that his work helps forge do a lot to provide a stable environment for children to grow and thrive. As they get older, kids are more likely to help others when they’re seen strong examples of generosity early on – especially when the standard has been set at the level of someone like Papa Joe, a living legend in his community and beyond. Young or old, the inspiration he provides encourages others to carry his work forward.
“I’m crazy like this,” Joe said. “I love being a part of this community, even though you’ve got violence going on…because I believe for the community to change you’ve got to have someone who comes in with love in their heart. So what I do is flood the community with people who have love in their hearts.”
With love and appreciation in our own hearts, we couldn’t be more proud to support a community partner.
If you are able, please take a moment today to make a donation. Any gift, no matter the amount, can be the difference between hunger and hope for a child.