Marc Fein, NBC 5 News
Texas wrestling star Justin Wren to spend a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to live and fight for the Pygmies people.
He’s a former he's a former Texas state high school wrestling champion who made a name for himself as an Ultimate Fighter. He was actually the youngest ever to appear on a reality show for the organization. But that's not close to the most interesting thing about Justin Wren.
A video of Justin Wren recently went viral. It shows a group of Congan children petting the blonde hair on his arms. They’d never seen a man with blonde hair, and they’ve never seen hair on a man’s arm! The video is enchanting. But to really appreciate the video and how Justin Wren wound up in the Congo, you first have to know where he came from.
Wren was a ten time state champion wrestler in Texas, a five time all-American and a two time national champion. But after high school, Justin didn't take the conventional route. He went straight to the Olympic training center.
And his career was off and running, but Justin knew something wasn't right.
“Wrestling and fighting didn't fulfill me," Wren said. "So at 23-years-old, even though I had fought in the UFC, and been a national champion wrestler, and I wrestled in Moscow. I kick boxed in Amsterdam. I was the main event at the hard rock in Las Vegas."
"I was depressed, so I was drinking and drugging, I even attempted suicide. I hit rock bottom at 23.”
And in the process he let a lot of people down. He missed his best friend’s wedding. Made worse by the fact that he was the best man! “After you miss your best friend’s wedding. Being the best man, and after you hurt everyone around you, and you’re just a hurt person that hurts people, you want to hurt yourself. So that's where I got.”
But a childhood friend got through to Justin and convinced him to go on a retreat. Justin found religion, and friends, and meaning to his life.
Justin’s decision to give up drugs coincided with a conscious decision to give back. Now he's decided to give up first world comfort to live in a hut for a year in a third world country. His emptied a home in Colorado, sold most of his belongings and what’s left is on a houseboat in North Texas.
“About a year into me breaking free from all of the drugs and the drinking, I just wanted to go from always fighting against people to finally fighting for people," Wren said. "And when I did that it changed everything for me.”
After some research, this Texas sized man, with his new Texas sized heart, decided to help the smallest of people. He became a voice for the enslaved pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Everyone else calls them the forest people," Wren said. "They called themselves the forest people, now they call themselves the forgotten people, because they've even been forgotten as humans.”
The Pygmies have been called half man half animal by many of their fellow countrymen. They have suffered cannibalism, and they’ve been slaves for years. And the DRC is arguably the most dangerous place on Earth. Still Justin spent a month there on two different occasions.
“I woke up sleeping in a twiggy leaf hut, literally this tall, I’m having to crawl into it, and then it's the rain forest, so it's raining, so literally I woke up, several times sinking in mud!," Justin recalled.
But he had made a connection. “They said ‘can you help us have a voice, we have none.’ And I said I can absolutely help you with that.“
Although after his first trip, Justin wasn't so sure. “If there was one place on this planet I never wanted to go to again, it was Congo. Then I thought, ‘what if nobody's fighting for these people, what if I’m supposed to fight for them.’”
The second time he went, he became family. Justin is still awed at the connection.
“I’m 6'3" 285 pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes," Wren said. "The average Pygmy man is 4'7”. We’re just complete opposites. But our hearts are connected and we're family. They gave me the name Efeosa. And Efeosa means the man who loves us. And that was my goal. Was to go there and just love them well.”
The hard part was seeing the people he now loved, hurt. The stories are endless and each one more unbelievable than the last.
Justin smiles when he talks of his buddy Harry.
"He's family, he gets paid after 10-12 hours of work, and he might get one or two minnows," Wren said. "I saw him get minnows. His wife was home sick, but you don't work you don't eat. So he had to share his two minnows with his sick wife.”
“Another woman was carrying a 120 pound bag of charcoal," Wren said. "Her slave masters tied a rope around her head, two men put charcoal on her back and she walked 4 to 5 kilometers through the jungle. And she got paid literally a mouse pad sized piece of goat fur, and that was what she was paid to eat.”
And Justin’s tone drops as he talks about a young family member, Andi Bo.
“One of the toughest things I saw was Andi Bo, an innocent infant denied hospital treatment and dying," Wren said. "When I went to pick him up that's when he started bleeding out of his ears. And the next day I buried him. And while I was digging his grave they told me to go ahead and dig his mom's grave.”
The family knew Andi Bo’s mom had the same parasite that took her son’s life. They figured it wouldn’t be long. But Justin wouldn’t have any of it. “I was like no it's not over yet, and their like it's about to be, because she'll get denied hospital treatment too.” Justin got Andi Bo's mom to the hospital and made sure she got treatment.
Now he's headed back to the DRC. This time for a year. He’ll live in a hut barely bigger than his enormous frame. And he’ll do everything he can to help. Working with Shalom University, they'll barter with the slave masters, offering things like money and water wells for the freedom of Pygmies.
In a year, Justin thinks he might be able to see 1000 of his friends and his new family finally free.
Justin dreams of seeing this goal become a reality.
“More important to me than my UFC fighting or anything here is seeing that my actual family," Wren said. "They've brought me in as family, to see that they have their freedom. My goal is to see them loved. to fight for the forgotten, to see they know that they're not forgotten, that people care about them, that their life is worth living, and that they're loved. So I’m going over there to love the unloved.”
To be clear, Justin isn't doing this on his own. He’s working, as he said, with Shalom University in the Congo. They’ve been working on this same effort for seven years. Justin calls his part of the program "fight for the forgotten".