COMMENTARY | Former "Ultimate Fighter" contestant Justin Wren had an outstanding future brewing as a mixed martial artist. He followed up a close "Ultimate Fighter 10" Finale loss to Jon Madsen with three straight solid submission victories, including an impressive submission victory over Josh Robertson at FFI: Blood and Sand 8 in July 2010.
Considering Wren's previous experience on the "Ultimate Fighter" and his winning streak, it's safe to say that he was probably close to making his return to the octagon. However, something changed in Wren. A former drug addict and heavy drinker, Wren became a Christian and turned his life around in July 2010. He soon began sharing his story with others through the Champions of Life prison ministry and volunteering in local hospitals. Still, it wasn't until Wren visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo that he found his true calling in life.
"I went with a buddy to Congo after hearing about the immense amount of suffering of the Pygmies," Wren said. "They were pushed off their land, or had it stolen from them and then enslaved on it. They have been thought to be less than human and have even been victims of cannibalism as recently as 2012. Not to mention they have the lowest life expectancy on the planet, combined with the world's highest child mortality rate. Traditionally, they are known as 'the forest people,' but they identify themselves as 'the forgotten people,' and they truly are forgotten."
Wren hated his first trip to the war-torn country. The combination of corruption and suffering within the region was too much for him, and he didn't want to go back. However, Wren quickly changed his mind about returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Mbuti Pygmy people had made an impact within him, and Wren wasn't about to let them remain unloved.
"It's nuts, but on the same day I was saying I'd never come back to this country, I feel that's when I caught the vision that I'm actually trying to live out now, three years later," Wren said. "At first, I thought I'd spend a month here, do some good, come home and go back to fighting. However, I discovered a baffling combination of the world's most heart-warming people who suffer through the most heartbreaking circumstances. I started to feel I could maybe make a difference, and even if it was just in the life of [one] person, it would be totally worth hurdling whatever obstacles came."
Wren has been making a difference in the Congo, but it hasn't been without a price. He's currently in the sixth month of a one-year missionary stint with the Pygmies, and it's taken a toll on him. Wren had to be flown to Kampala, Uganda, for medical treatment over last Thanksgiving weekend. He was battling typhoid, malaria and blackwater fever at the same time. Wren lost 25 pounds in five days, and it took close to a month for him to recover.
Unfortunately, Wren has had to deal with other trials as well, including the high mortality rate of the people he's grown to love.
"Even bigger obstacles have been when one of my Pygmy family dies," Wren said. "The latest [death] being last week, and it was Babo, my six-month-old Pygmy nephew. Digging a grave for an infant is both the toughest trial and the most emotionally taxing experience I've ever been through in my life, especially when you know that the death was preventable, mainly just by having clean water or some access to medical care.
"Babo's funeral was a few days ago, and in two weeks, we are having a feast in honor of the six Pygmies who have passed away in the past 5-6 months from one village of 120 people. Death is a reality here, and that is a pretty big trial to face head on and see if there is a way to overcome it."
Wren's love for the Pygmies has only strengthened his resolve. His Fight for the Forgotten non-profit organization has acquired 10 square kilometers of land in the name of the Mbuti Pygmies.
"They were the first citizens of Congo, of Africa, and they had never technically owned their own land, but the land they lived on for thousands of years was being stolen from them," Wren said. "Fight for the Forgotten is working to get parts of their land back. We legally already have all the paperwork we need, and it's been approved by the courts, but now we are establishing the Pygmies as their own local government because in Congo that is even stronger than court paperwork or boundaries that can fall down."
Fight for the Forgotten has focused on building 23 wells in the area. Two wells have already been built, and the organization has hired graduate students from Shalom University's School of Community Development program to serve as the drill team for the project.
Wren and his team have also been able to harvest corn, beans, rice and cassava as food sources with plans to start raising chickens and perhaps tilapia ponds. Finally, Fight for the Forgotten has also succeeded in building bio-dome or earthbag homes for the Pygmies. Overall, Wren has accomplished a lot since reaching the Congo, and his motivation remains the same: love.
"First, I'd say it was God's love for me, which all my life I had never believed in," Wren said. "Then I'd say it was my love for Him, which I would have never thought possible. Third, it would be my love for the Pygmies, which I could have never dreamed up or imagined for my life. At the end of the day, or at the end of my life my belief is that God really only wants two things from us: it's for us to love Him, and for us to love people."
Wren walked away from a promising career as a mixed martial artist to pursue a different kind of fight, and it remains to be seen if he will ever set foot in the cage again. Nonetheless, his mission in the Congo remains at the forefront of his life. He's changing the lives of the Pygmies one day at a time.
If you'd like to know more about the Fight for the Forgotten, you can check out their website at Fightfortheforgotten.com. You can also help Wren with his mission in the Congo by donating to his Indigogo campaign.
- Justin Wren