Story by Denise Bradford, co-founder of Elijah’s Heart and wife of Papa Joe
The heart behind the film, Unconditional, is to raise awareness about children, like the ones who were invited on this day, who are desperately searching for hope, acceptance and value. This special event, a cooperative effort by multiple organizations, was meant to be a gift of kindness and loving affection toward these children. The experience and the responses were truly mind-blowing!
Initially, Elijah’s Heart was asked to invite the Unity Choir and other children from the low-income communities we reach, but Papa Joe felt led to include children being served by other inner-city ministries in the Nashville area as well. Youth from Rocketown, Youth Life Learning Center with Yolanda Shields, Family Affair with Pastor Glenda Gleaves Sutton, and various YMCA programs with Amber Jackson were thrilled to participate.
The day began with the children being picked up from their communities and bussed to the theater together. When the children arrived, they were greeted with love and received popcorn, drinks and candy to enjoy during the film…all graciously provided by Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Bishop Joseph Warren Walker, III.
As the film began…as I sat in that theater, I could feel the tangible presence of a loving Father filling the atmosphere. It was like waves of peace, comfort and healing sweeping through each row…flowing over the children who were so deeply engaged in the story and its message of hope and unconditional LOVE.
As they watched, the children and adult chaperones laughed, shouted in excitement and cried at the dramatic representation of the life of their “Papa Joe.” By the end, the young ones were cheering like we were watching a football game and our team had won!
After the film, I had a chance to speak with a few children about their experience. Many of them said they were thrilled to see themselves actually in the movie (the producers had cast a number of inner-city children in the film). Others, having learned more about their “Papa Joe,” felt special to get to be in his life and to be loved by him. Without exception, they all said they loved the movie and a few even declared their favorite parts were… “EVERYTHING!”
For many of them, the movie hit very close to home. During a scene where the young boy asked Papa Joe to be his dad, an Elijah’s Heart team member said she could hear a little boy behind her crying and his words, “I know what it feels like…to not have a dad.”
There was one man who came along who was an actual father of a child who was cast as one of “Papa Joe’s kids” in the film. Before he said a word to me about his experience, I could tell he was blown away and very deeply affected. With a smile from ear-to-ear, he explained to me how he never opens up to anyone about the time he had spent in prison. But after seeing that Papa Joe had a similar experience, he felt connected with him. He was not only inspired but was given a sense of hope that penetrated through his heart, overriding the feelings of failure and rejection. He told me he now felt there was hope for a future in spite of his prison background. Sounds to me like yet another incredible story in the making!
On the way home, one of the bus drivers reported how much she enjoyed listening to the kids talking about some of the exciting highlights of the movie. They were raving over the fight scenes, the suspense and mystery. One of the adult chaperones on the bus asked them their take on the whole point of the movie…and with ONE, collective voice, they ALL yelled, “LOVE EVERYBODYYYYY!!!” The bus driver was so moved she almost cried as she told me. She exclaimed, “They got it…they really got it!”
I could go on and on about that day. There was no mistaking the loving presence of God intimately saturating even such a public place. The hand of the Father caressed the hearts of these precious, captivated children…and even the adults. I am forever thankful for the producers and director/writer for allowing their gifts to be used by God. Blessings upon this film…BLESSINGS upon the hearts opened to receive the anointing that flows from it.
And the fruit of reaching out to other organizations was a remarkable sign of unity – a sign that was witnessed by all the leaders involved. They unanimously agreed that this is just the beginning of more cross-organization events to come.
In closing, I can tell you with certainty that this movie will indeed have a lasting impact on all those who saw it…and that this wonderful day will be one I will never forget.