When Oye Waddell was 14 years old, he noticed that his friends were starting to make quite a bit of money.
“We played basketball at the park,” he said. “They started to drive around in nice cars and wear brand-new clothes. We all grew up together. I was like, ‘Man, I know your family doesn’t have this money. How are you doing this?’”
He didn’t wonder for long. “One of my friend’s moms asked me for dope. She just assumed I was [dealing drugs] too.”
Waddell wasn’t, and didn’t (though it was tempting). When his high school friends went to prison or the funeral home, he went to the University of Washington. From there, he watched drug addictions, violence, and prison sentences continue to wreck everything—individual lives, families, and the community.
Anxious to help, he took classes in community development. He moved back to L.A.to start a Christian sports program, moved to Phoenix to learn how to start charter schools, and thought about church planting.
Then, six years ago, Waddell veered off the well-worn paths that nonprofits take into under-resourced neighborhoods.
He started scoping out the hustlers, people who reminded him of his old friends—ambitious, bright, entrepreneurial, but without capital or connections to legal marketplace opportunities. He offered to teach them business skills, connect them with other businessmen, and give them financial backing.
He also taught them a new way to think about labor. He told them that God created work in the Garden of Eden, that it was corrupted by sin, and that they could help restore it to the healthy, legal serving of God and neighbor it was intended to be.
Waddell was giving hustlers in Phoenix a new hustle—a restorative hustle.
“It’s like when my kids were young and playing with something they shouldn’t have,” said Riccardo Stewart, who grew up in a Los Angeles neighborhood like Waddell’s. Now he pastors at Redemption Tempe and sits on Waddell’s board. “I wouldn’t have just said, ‘Don’t play with that.’ I would have put something else in their hands.”
Since 2012, Hustle PHX has helped entrepreneurs start window-cleaning businesses, expand lawn-care companies, and market homemade ice-cream cones. It’s helped a flower shop owner understand why she runs her business (to serve God and others), helped a woman who owns a cleaning business know how to charge customers and mentor employees, and helped a coffee shop owner expand her reach in ways that facilitate community.
“Being able to notice the ingenuity and creativity and giving in the neighborhoods Hustle PHX serves is amazing,” Stewart said. “We’re watching God redeem [those gifts] for their community and family.”
Waddell was born in inner-city Los Angeles in 1978. When he was 4, crack cocaine—easier to work with and cheaper than cocaine—hit the streets. Its main port of entry into the United States was southern Florida; when federal authorities cracked down there, drug traffickers rerouted through the gangs of Los Angeles.
“I used to fight a lot because I wouldn’t do it,” Waddell said of joining a gang or selling drugs. The money was tempting, especially for a guy with Waddell’s entrepreneurial bent. But he had his mom, sports, and a church home (though he was only nominally Christian then) to ground him.
Waddell got serious about his faith in college. He moved in with Athletes in Action leader Mike Gunn—“it was supposed to be a month; it turned into two years”—and watched him. “He discipled me, and I saw Christianity in a different way,” Waddell said.
Waddell was “passionate about business,” but didn’t major in it—or even take any classes in it.
“My classes were all related to community development,” he said. “I wanted to go back [to] south central Los Angeles and do something about my community.”
Waddell headed for politics until one of his professors told him nonprofits were better agents for change. So he switched gears and got a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management. Then he went back to California and started Eternal Sports Outreach.
“There was a lot of gang violence in [the inner Los Angeles suburb of] Compton,” he said. “There was a lot of infighting between African American and Latino gangs. We brought African American and Latino churches together and said, ‘How do we use sports as a way to disciple young people at 6 and 7, so when they get to 15, they hopefully won’t be killing each other?’”
Waddell ran Eternal Sports Outreach for nine years. Churches reached into their neighborhoods. Gyms were redone. Relationships were built. By the end, about 200 low-income kids were playing ball together and learning about Jesus.
Waddell was a father figure to nearly all of them, since most had fathers or uncles or grandfathers in prison. “I started reading more about millions of men going to prison,” Waddell said. “You start studying, and you see that a lot of the prison population is connected to kids’ reading scores.”
Charter schools were part of the answer, Waddell thought. So he headed to Phoenix to learn how to start them.
He took his secret with him: The whole time he had been ministering in Los Angeles, Waddell had been running side hustles. He ran a sports marketing business, helped people get home loans, and invested in property.
“I did little things to scratch the itch,” he said. “But I’d never tell anybody in the Christian community, because my theology at the time said, ‘You can’t serve God and money.’”
Faith and Work
Before he left Los Angeles, Waddell met Eric Knox, a church planter also working as a mortgage broker. (“That was because of expediency at first, not theology,” Knox said. His wife wanted to stay home with the kids, and inner-city church planting is financially straining.)
“I saw him use business as a way to disciple people,” Oye said. “I didn’t know you could even do that. I thought you had to pick one [ministry or business] and that was it. I didn’t know you could blend those together.”
Knox made money at his business and prioritized people—he made “fair and reasonable loans,” said Waddell’s wife, Crys, who was also watching. “And sometimes he would talk people out of deals they couldn’t afford.”
“This was [Waddell’s] first hint that, ‘Wow. Christ is everywhere. There is no separation of Christ and business and life,’” Crys said.
When Waddell moved to Phoenix, Knox connected him with Tyler Johnson and Redemption Church, who were beginning to work on the Surge Network of like-minded churches in the city. One of Surge’s initiatives is Faith, Work, and Rest, which helps people “discern their vocations and reimagine their occupations for the good of their neighbor and the glory of God.”
“All those things blending together—Eric Knox, Tyler with Surge—started to give me a view of who God is and what he calls us to do,” Waddell said. “I was seeing models of it, not just talking about it in an esoteric way.”
Waddell got his master’s degree in education from Arizona State University. He worked with schools in inner-city Phoenix. He was doing what he’d planned, but something was still bugging him.
“He used the term ‘urban leadership,’” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘I don’t exactly know what that means, but I know this is what I want to do.’”
Waddell thought it might be planting churches. So Johnson hired him at Redemption as a resident to see the “back end of church ministry.” He also gave Waddell “a lot of room for exploration in South Phoenix.”
“All we did is provide him space,” Johnson said. “I don’t think any of us had any sense that it would turn into Hustle PHX.”
Editor’s note: Read the rest of Waddell’s story about Hustle PHX on TheGospel Coalition.com. This excerpt is republished with permission from The Gospel Coalition.
Learn more about how to help alleviate poverty and restore dignity in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.
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Photo credit: Alan Stark on Flickr