Redemption Shot: Justin Wren's path from drug addict to Christian missionary

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In of a moment of weariness five weeks ago, Justin Wren prayed to God for a sign. Wren, a multi-time state wrestling champion (in all three styles) and a two-time national champion who’d competed on The Ultimate Fighter 10 in 2009, had put a promising fighting career on hold. Now he wanted to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo for a third time this summer with enough funding to help liberate 1,000 Pygmy slaves in one year, but he was struggling to get momentum going for the cause.

“I asked God to give me a sign that this wasn’t what I was supposed be doing right now, that he had other plans for me,” said the 25-year-old Wren. “If this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, I just needed a little sign.”

Wren received a bit more than that. The fighter-turned-Christian missionary woke up on Feb. 28 to find more than 2,000 emails in his inbox after a two-minute cellphone video he’d posted online months earlier had gone viral overnight.

In the video, a group of wide-eyed Congolese children crowd around Wren, joyfully petting him like he’s a golden retriever -- the first time they’ve ever seen a white man (with arm hair no less) in their remote village. The video took off on, a social-media tracker site on Feb. 26, and aired the next night on The Jimmy Kimmel Show and the following morning on The Today Show. TMZ, Gawker, and Deadspin all picked up the warm and fuzzy clip, which got 400,000 views in the first 24 hours and is closing in on one million hits.

Since Feb. 28, Wren has been working nonstop to capitalize on the attention the video has gotten – not for himself, but for the Pygmy men, women and children that are forced into slavery by the very people whose children are seen ogling Wren in the clip.

As the story behind the video has spread, Wren has been inundated with requests to share it. The last month has been a whirlwind of regional, national and international TV, radio and podcast interviews; meetings with philanthropists, supply companies, publicists, film and TV producers, and literary agents (Wren has already signed on with New York’s Foundry Media and Literary Agency to pen a book with this writer about his experiences). Wren has traveled to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, sleeping in hotel rooms donated by MMA fans and on friends’ couches, so that every possible avenue could be taken to get the word out about the Pygmy plight.

The story -- a universal one about helping those less fortunate --- is striking a chord. So far, Wren’s raised nearly half of the $50,000 he’ll need to return to the DRC this summer to aid nine enslaved Mbutu Pygmy tribes facing starvation, inhumane persecution, and in some cases, extermination. The project is called “Fight for the Forgotten,” which through a partnership with the Congo-based Shalom University, aims to free 1,000 enslaved Pygmies in one year and relocate them to land where they’ll eventually be able to self-sustain themselves.

Wren was once among those who found it hard to imagine that slavery still exists in this day and age. It was something he didn’t quite grasp until Wren saw it with his own eyes during his previous month-long trips to the DRC in July 2011 and August 2012. The Pygmies, whose average man reaches no taller than 4-foot-9, are a people shun by the other tribes in Eastern Congo. Pygmies are often referred to as animals, said Wren, and are denied medical care, education and citizenship in their own country. Their tribes are pushed into the jungles with little to protect themselves from the elements and they become slaves when landowners claim the soil from underneath them. Deforestation has caused the wildlife to scatter, which has forced the hunter-driven Pygmies to rely upon their slave owners for survival, said Wren. It’s a firmly established caste system built on a foundation of superstition and prejudice.

“I’ve spoken to Pygmies who’ve watched their relatives be hunted and eaten,” said Wren. “The other tribes believe that if they eat a Pygmy, they’ll be impervious in battle.”

Wren said estimates peg the Pygmy population anywhere from 300,000 to 600,000 across a handful of African countries, though many villages are so remote that a truly accurate number isn’t obtainable. In the Eastern Congo, a region torn apart by violent rebel militias who war over the land’s lucrative natural resources, the Pygmy population is at an even greater disadvantage.

Wren has focused his efforts on the nine Pygmy tribes. He has already cultivated a trusting relationship with seven of them and is seen as family in the other two. These tribes have been enslaved by the Bantu people, said Wren, who take advantage of the Pygmies’ lack of education and resources.

During his 2012 trip, Wren watched a Pygmy woman, who stood no taller than his waist, carry a 120-pound bag of coal on her back for three miles. Her Bantu slave owner rewarded her with a patch of goat fur to eat. Another Pygmy slave was paid two minnows for a 12-hour workday in the fields, which he took home to his sick wife to share as their dinner.

The discrimination was hardest to swallow with the most helpless victims. Wren saw Pygmy children born with parasitic afflictions that could be cured with simple medicine. After being shown the graves of eight Pygmy babies who were denied medical care by the Bantu tribes, Wren himself held a year-and-a-half infant named Andibo in his arms as he died.

Andibo’s mother, a widowed slave, had offered the local hospital enough payment for the needed medicine, which Wren said would have equaled about a dollar, but the doctor had told her that he wouldn’t waste the medicine on a “Pygmy animal.” Wren buried Andibo in a casket he bought from the Bantus for $48.

“That kind of stuff sticks with you. That was the moment where I realized I had to do something, that there was no turning back,” said Wren. “I thought, ‘If not me, who?’”

Wren lived among the Pygmies during his two visits, sleeping in their leaf-roofed huts that blew away nearly every night and waking up with them in the mud each morning. Bugs, poisonous snakes and other predatory wildlife were all around him. Wren survived on caterpillars, goat intestines and power bars he’d brought from home. He filtered his water from the stagnant, brown stream the Pygmies drank from and nearly contracted malaria at the end of his first trip.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Wren communicated through a translator, though he and the Pygmies bonded through their mutual suffering. The Pygmies gave Wren the name Eféosa, which means “The Man Who Loves Us.”

“The Pygmies call themselves ‘The Forgotten People,”’ said Wren. “One of my life’s missions is to fight for the forgotten and let them know they’re loved.”

During his 2012 trip, Wren worked with the 50-year-old Shalom University to free the first 60 Pygmy slaves from Bantu ownership through the program that had been seven years in the making. Shalom and Wren believe they can free nearly twenty times that figure within the next year.

It’s an inspiring tale of selflessness, made that much more astounding by Wren himself, who only 34 months ago, was losing the battle for his life against depression and drug addiction.

“Three years ago, I was a drug addict hitchhiking through the mountains of Colorado, waking up in drug dens so far gone that the other addicts were taking care of me because I was the worst one,” said Wren.

Rock Bottom

Justin Wren’s first suicidal thoughts came at age 13. An awkward and shy Wren sat alone in the cafeteria at his lunch table each day, as the other kids wadded their straw wrappers with chocolate milk and spat them out at him.

The other kids humiliated Wren with elaborately cruel practical jokes, and fed on his lack of confidence and need to belong. When his classmates told him he’d be better off killing himself, Wren began to agree with them. At age 14, Wren was medically diagnosed with depression, through the Dallas-Fort Worth native didn’t want to accept it. When he watched his first Ultimate Fighting Championship event, something clicked for the troubled Wren.

Becoming a UFC fighter would put an end to the bullying, he thought. It would fill the emptiness he had inside. Wren began to smuggle UFC tapes into his bedroom and would watch them at night after his parents went to sleep. When their son began to flourish as a high school wrestler, Wren’s parents paid for the 15-year-old to go to Dallas Bishop High, a private institution where Wren had Olympic gold medalists Kenny Monday and Kendall Cross as his coaches.

Finally having an outlet to release years of frustration, Wren was an irate competitor. He trashtalked his opponents and argued with the referees. Still, he was driven and became a winner. Wren earned two prep state championships and one national title before joining the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs right out of high school.

Wren’s wrestling successes became a way for him to prove his parents and doctors wrong about his depression. “I put on a good show,” he said. “Everybody looking in thought I had everything going for me.”

However, this success came at a price. Wren broke his arm in his final high school match and was prescribed oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller. Wren ran through a month’s supply of the painkiller in a week and when his physician told him to slow down, Wren obtained a second prescription from another doctor.

Wren’s drug abuse escalated with heavy drinking and marijuana use during a brief stint at Iowa State. Wren also began to take local fights, and sampled cocaine for the first time after one of those bouts. From the outside, Wren was an appealing looking 7-1 heavyweight when he got the call to join The Ultimate Fighter cast. He was also a raging drug addict.

Wren hid his addictions well from his housemates and coaches. When it came time to pick the fight teams, Wren was the first choice for Trevor Wittman, an assistant coach to former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans on the show.

“I thought he had the best chance to win,” said Wittman, who forged an instant connection with Wren on the show. “He was very coachable. He is a guy who had a whole bunch of belief that when you believe you can do it, you always do it.”

Wren performed well during the series, most notably in a controversial decision loss to Roy Nelson, who’d go on to win the entire competition. Wren was one of a few contestants invited to fight at The Ultimate Fighter 10 finale in Las Vegas.

Two days before his fight with castmate Jon Madsen, Wren was popping painkillers and smoking pot in his hotel room. If he’d been drug-tested for the bout, Wren guarantees he would have failed. Wren lost a split decision to Madsen, but was told that with another win or two regionally, he’d be back in the UFC in no time. Wren possessed obvious potential to become a UFC contender and the reality series had introduced him to the right trainers to help him make that happen. Still, Wren felt like something was missing.

“I hadn’t reached the top of the top [in the sport,] but I kept thinking, ‘Is this it?’” recalls Wren. “I looked around at my teammates, some of them world champions, cheating on their wives and battling some of the same drug additions and knew they were asking the same question: Is this it?”

With these thoughts churning in his head, Wren settled in the Denver area to train with Wittman at the Grudge Training Center, then the home of UFC heavyweights Shane Carwin and Brendan Schaub, and other UFC notables. In Colorado, Wren got his medical marijuana license and smoked every day before practice.

“I was coming in literally training high and [my teammates] knew it,” said Wren. “I was such a pothead that two dispensaries hung my signed poster in their shops.”

Wren began skipping Grudge practices for drug-induced hiking trips through the Colorado Mountains. He drank and smoked heavily and took hallucinogens like mushrooms and ecstasy in dangerous combinations, many times with the goal to kill himself.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done meth but I couldn’t tell you, to be honest,” said Wren. “There was a two-and-a-half-month period where I don’t remember a thing. I don’t know where I was. That’s when I found myself hitchhiking.”

During this bender, Wren missed his best friend’s wedding (he was supposed to be the best man), and remembers listening to a few seconds of an eight-minute call from him before hitting delete to take another drug hit.

At Grudge, Wittman was torn as a friend and coach to Wren, but had seen enough.

“People were talking around the gym about if he belonged at Grudge,” said Wittman. “When it comes to technique and athleticism and heart, he belongs there so much. But he was in a point in his life where [the] outside influences were causing him to disappear, to not show up.”

Wren remembers the day he walked into Grudge, his breath reeking of alcohol, watching his teammates eyeball him as he walked into “Coach T’s” office. It was April 2010, just a few weeks out from Wren’s next fight. Wittman reluctantly sat the fighter down to tell him he was out and encouraged him to enter a rehab program.

“He told me that everybody had voted me off the team except him, but he couldn’t go against the other guys any longer,” recalls Wren. “He said none of the other fighters wanted their name attached to me.”

Outside in Grudge’s parking lot, a tearful and angry Wren got into his car, trying to decide what to do next. This was rock bottom, even if Wren didn’t realize it. Wittman had recommended rehab, so when Wren got a text in that moment, he thought it might have to do with that. A childhood friend named Jeff Duncan had been texting and emailing Wren for 60 days straight, but all of his messages had gone unread. Duncan was a religious man, said Wren, and the fighter hadn’t had a positive experience with religion during his childhood.

However, Wren reluctantly opened an email from Duncan entitled “Game Plan for Victory.” It offered an all-expense-paid invitation to a Christian men’s retreat called “Quest.”

Wren had nowhere else to go, so he called Duncan, who paid for the fighter and one training partner to attend the retreat on a sprawling estate in the hill country of south Texas. Duncan paid another few thousand for pads and mitts so Wren could continue to prepare for his fight. Wren brought his drugs with him.

On May 5, 2010, three days into the retreat and with pain pills and marijuana tootsie rolls lining his pockets, Wren had his epiphany.

“Everything changed in one day,” said Wren. “That day, I experienced God’s love and gave my life to Christ and it changed everything.”

Seventeen days later, and remarkably with few signs of physical withdrawal present, Wren earned a unanimous decision in his fight. Two months later, Wren (10-2) won at a show in Biloxi, Miss. Wren said he was clean for the first time in his fighting career.

A Different Kind of Champion

On a plane flight that November, Wren opened up to the stranger sitting next to him about his rollercoaster life. Bill Glass offered Wren a position on the spot with his “Champions of Life” prison ministry and the fighter began sharing his testimonial with inmates, some of them on death row.

“I was ten times more nervous to speak in front of a few people than to fight in front of thousands,” said Wren, “but I told the guys that I’d been in a prison of my own, maybe not like this, but one I didn’t think I could get out of.”

A few speaking engagements led to a few more, and as word of mouth spread, Wren was invited to speak at juvenile detention centers, high schools and with other congregations. Hesitant to accept money for his public speaking, Wren supported himself for a while with fighter appearances and signings and working part-time for his parents’ sports photography company.

Wren slowly started to repair the relationships his drug abuse had nearly ruined. He attended church, began to volunteer at the local hospitals and eventually returned to Wittman and Grudge to resume his training.

In May 2011, Wren got the opportunity to join a humanitarian mission to Haiti, where he watched children climb through trash piled like snow drifts to reach drinkable water in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake that leveled the country’s capital city. In the next year, Wren went on missions in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Every country teemed with the impoverished, but Wren felt the Pygmies were the worst off of them all. These were the ultimate bullying victims, he thought, and the awkward 13-year-old boy inside of him could relate to them. Wren felt these were the people who needed his love the most.

When Wren heard about Shalom University’s plan to free the Pygmies, he made a vow to himself to find the funds to kickstart the program once he made it back to the States. He’ll take those donations back with him this summer to try and change the course of Pygmy generations to come.

This next trip will be inherently more dangerous than the previous two. Whereas Wren was once an observer, he’ll now be an activist trying to institute change to a social system that some classes take no issue with. In freeing Pygmies through bartering and other negotiations, Wren and Shalom will be affecting the way the Bantus have survived for years and the shift could be met with resistance. In the backdrop, Eastern Congo is in chaos, as rebel armies pillage innocent towns, infecting mothers with HIV and orphaning children, who are recruited as young as six years old to participate in military assaults many don’t survive. Last summer, Wren flew into a local airport just as it had been taken over by rebel forces. During his travels, Wren followed his guide past villages that would be decimated later that night. These are situations and forces that even an ultimate fighter should fear.

Wren’s parents and his girlfriend, Emily, also a missionary, initially begged him not to go, but have come to accept Wren’s resolve to see the fight for the forgotten through. Last week, the heavyhearted fighter gave his dog of five years away to a new family in his continued preparations for his “jungle journey.” Wren has also put a wedding with Emily, who he met in October 2011, on hold.

Along with the funds to purchase more land for the Pygmies and build a permanent Shalom facility on it to protect the project’s progress, Wren is currently researching new technologies that could teach the isolated people how to build sturdier homes that can better withstand the elements.

A return to professional fighting isn’t out of the question, said Wren, once this mission is accomplished. At age 25, Wren still has time to re-dedicate himself to his craft and make a legitimate run at the UFC title, said coach Wittman. Wren said that if he does fight again, he’d have a new motivation to fuel him.

“I’ll be fighting for the Pygmies, for my family living on the other side of the world,” said a smiling Wren, “and the other heavyweights better watch out.”

In Wren’s case, the word “champion” has many meanings, maybe the least of all of them referring to a title and a shiny, golden belt.

“I felt bad because I truly believe he can become an MMA champion. He’d just need to make the commitment,” said Wittman. “[But] he’s winning the championship on championing peoples’ lives. No doubt about that.”

-- Loretta Hunt