Joe Bradford

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Act III: Rising Action
Education has always been important to Papa Joe. A bright student, he majored in computer programming while attending the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Though he was raised in church, he fell away from God while in college as his interest in computer hacking increased.

“To me that was backsliding,” he says. “Pride began to rise up in my heart because I had power through hacking.” On a dare, Bradford successfully hacked into a bank. He was caught and sentenced to eight years in prison. Only two weeks shy of receiving his bachelor’s degree and a week after a promising IBM interview, Joe began serving his time.

While in prison, he often found himself in fights defending inmates who were being bullied by other inmates. After almost killing an inmate in a brawl, he was placed in solitary confinement, where he reunited with Christ after experiencing a vision.

“I got hope in solitary confinement, of all places,” he says. 

Like Joseph in the Bible, Bradford found favor in prison and was released after serving only 18 months of his eight-year sentence. Officials granted him early release because he helped establish the prison system’s computer operations. Before leaving, he had helped 30 men earn their GEDs. 

Bradford married Denise after getting out of prison, and they’ve been married for 19 years and have five biological children. Yet after touching hundreds of children and their families through Elijah’s Heart, Bradford hoped his tumultuous past was far behind him. So when Jason Atkins, co-founder of Harbinger Media, approached him about making a movie about his life, Papa Joe was reluctant to agree.

“It frightened me because there are skeletons in my closet,” he says. “I’ve been hiding the fact that I was in prison. I’ve been hiding the fact that I almost killed someone. I’ve been hiding the fact that I was a hacker. So [I said], ‘Please don’t tell the world.’”

Atkins met Papa Joe as a volunteer at Elijah’s Heart and admired him. But when God continued to nudge him to ask Bradford about his testimony, potentially to become the first film for his fledgling media company, Atkins was hesitant.

“Honestly, from what I knew about Joe’s story, I did not think this could make a theatrical movie,” Atkins says. “I love Joe; he has great character. He’s so gentle and a meek person, but that doesn’t make a movie.”

That changed after the producer, who started his company in 2009, asked Bradford to lunch.

“At that time [Bradford] starts crying over a Five Guys burger and starts to tell me all of the aspects of his life,” Atkins explains. “I said, ‘Well, maybe Jesus knows a little bit more about this than I do.’”

Act IV: The Climax
This month Atkins’ movie, Unconditional, based on Papa Joe’s life, hits theaters nationwide—yet another thing Bradford never imagined possible. The film stars Lynn Collins (John Carter, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Michael Ealy (Think Like a Man, Seven Pounds) and opens Sept. 21.

Yet for Atkins, the making of Unconditional turned out to be as melodramatic as Bradford’s own life.

The producer was hoping to find a true story that could compellingly share the love of Christ, and Bradford’s story turned out to be exactly what he was looking for.

Six weeks before filming began, however, a set that had taken 12 weeks to construct was destroyed by a tornado. The crew scrambled and remarkably was able to rebuild it in only six weeks. 

Then, only a week out from the first day of shooting, another set’s basement flooded. Once again, the crew pulled off a miracle by rebuilding it in one week.

Having overcome these hurdles, Atkins didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the drama continued.

Just one week into filming, the entire 70-member technical crew went on strike. In just three days he was able to replace those workers. 

“There’s no question that God’s hand has been on the project and that God has led us,” Atkins says. “When we were looking for a story to tell, we wanted a story that was based on true events or inspired by true events. We didn’t want to have to become fictitious about the love of God or who God is. We felt like a true story would be more powerful.”

Bradford says it’s humbling for his testimony to be told on the movie screen. And though his life is akin to a blockbuster movie, he insists he is no hero.

“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he says. “But there are so many against-all-odds experiences that I believe I’ve learned the secret weapon of a hero. And to me, from Papa Joe’s perspective, it’s the love of Christ in our hearts.

“I believe that word can be defined in the word unconditional. This movie is a testament to what I’ve learned throughout all of my experiences, and that’s love. That’s the weapon that can defeat anything. That’s my prayer for these children.”

Felicia Abraham is associate editor of Charisma. Though she doesn’t usually cry during movies, she could’ve gone through a box of Kleenex while watching Unconditional.

To see how Elijah’s Heart is changing thousands of lives click here.

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