God's Game Plan
June 1, 2011 - Ken Barun looks out the window of his third-floor office in Charlotte, N.C. He watches the tall oak trees sway in the soft spring breeze. As the leaves dance gently, the 63-year-old begins to talk about the undulating path his life has followed.
...Blessed be the name of the Lord—Job 1:21 (NKJV)
by Jerri Menges
Eleven years ago, Ken would have said it was pure luck that propelled him from a life of drugs on the street, to president of a drug treatment program, to the White House, to McDonald's Corporation. Ken turns to look at the black-and-white portrait above his desk: He sees his wife, Sethea, and the smiling faces of the children they share—her three daughters and his three sons. Then he looks with sadness at a smaller portrait on the table near the window: his first daughter, Gabrielle Dawn, who died suddenly two years ago. And this senior vice president with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says with absolute certainty: "My life has followed God's game plan."
Born in 1948 to a conservative Jewish textile designer and a homemaker, Ken Barun grew up playing basketball and baseball with his friends in his White Plains, N.Y., neighborhood. As teenagers, he and his buddy, Howard, would walk to the projects almost every week to visit their girlfriends and meet their buddies on the basketball court. At age 14, like many of his friends, Ken tried marijuana; at 18, heroin—and the euphoric opiate quickly sucked him in. By his early 20s, he found himself in Houston, Texas, working in upholstery sales and married, with a baby daughter, Gabrielle, and with so many drugs in his body that a blood clot collapsed his lungs.
Before he was released from the hospital, his wife left him and his employer fired him. Through the grace of a Catholic nun, he wound up in the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph's Hospital, praying to God for the first time in his life.
"God, if You get me off these drugs, I'll never use them again."
Almost immediately, Ken's life began to change, but it didn't occur to him that those changes had anything at all to do with his prayer. He didn't think about God when the board of directors of the Cenikor residential drug treatment program where he had lived and worked for eight years made him president of the organization.
But he did wonder, Why is this happening? I'm in my 20s. I don't know anything about running an operation like this.
He had the same sensation when he answered a telephone call two years later, in 1982, and the voice on the other end said, "This is Michael Castine. I'm from the White House." President Reagan was scheduled to be in town, and his staff thought he should visit Cenikor as part of his focus on private sector initiatives. Ken took no thought of God when he received a call from Reagan's chief of staff, James Baker, the day after Reagan's visit, inviting him to the White House.
He put on a suit, flew to Washington D.C., and went to Baker's West Wing office. As a result of that visit, Ken was offered a volunteer role on Reagan's 1984 campaign and, after Reagan's landslide win, a job in Washington. After two weeks on the job as a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, Nancy Reagan offered him a job as her director of projects and policy. His primary responsibility would be Mrs. Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign.
"I pinched myself every time I went through the east gate of the White House," he says. "Here I am, 30 years old, and I'm trying to figure out how to make the First Lady of the United States look good. Again, I'm thinking, How did this happen?"
Near the end of Reagan's term, Ken started to look for other jobs. Every company he contacted returned his call. And even one that he didn't—a headhunter looking for someone to start and run Ronald McDonald Children's Charities in Chicago. Ken accepted that position and within two years was named president, without even applying for the job.
"The things that were happening to me could easily lead somebody—and did, to some degree—make me believe that I had some talent," Ken says. "But I could never truly believe that. All of these things were happening to me without me really understanding why, and that made me feel very insecure."
The first time Ken's thoughts returned to God, he was behind the wheel of a Ferrari, barreling down the road during a fund-raiser for McDonald's Charities put on by Car and Driver magazine. Paul Saber, a McDonald's franchise owner, was sitting in the seat beside him, urging him to press the accelerator even harder.
"Are you crazy?" Ken asked. "You act like you're not afraid to die."
"I'm not afraid to die," Paul replied. "I know where I'm going … Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"
What? Ken slammed on the brake. We're flying down the highway and this guy is talking to me about Jesus Christ?
Ken had gone to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed at 13. He had traveled the world with Nancy Reagan and McDonald's. He had become friends with Michael Jordan, the Duchess of York, the Dalai Lama, and met with Pope John Paul II privately on two occasions. He had helped provide operations for children with facial deformities and facilitated the immunization of thousands of women in Asia and Africa from tetanus. Why would he need Jesus?
"Paul, I'm a Jewish kid from New York," he said. "I'm fine. I respect you for your faith. Just respect me for mine, and we'll get along fine."
Over the next 10 years, Paul continued to tell Ken how God created the earth, how Christ died for him and how God had a purpose for his life.
"I don't believe that for a minute,'" Ken would say.
But he couldn't deny the unrest he felt when he reflected on his life. He had worked hard for everything he had, but he could give no valid explanation for anything he had achieved. The emptiness would not go away, even after a second marriage ended and he married Sethea. Finally, one night as he and Sethea were having dinner with Paul and his wife, Diane, Ken confessed his feelings to his friend.
"Paul, at the risk of offending my wife, I thought for certain that when I married her I would be completely fulfilled," Ken began. "I have a great job. I have status, I have money, connections around the world and lots of friends. But I still have this terrible hole in my heart. Something isn't right."
Paul said simply: "Ken, I've told you for 10 years what you need to do."
Ken could feel his resistance melting. "What do I have to do to accept Christ? Do I have to go to a synagogue or a church? Do I have to build something?"
"No" Paul said. "You just have to pray."
Right there, on the restaurant patio, Ken and Sethea closed their eyes, and both prayed a prayer of faith and repentance. As they prayed, scenes from Ken's past flooded his mind, and he burst into uncontrollable sobs. Finally, his life made sense.
"I began to realize that God had been working in every circumstance of my life, the good and the bad," he says. "Like a miracle, I suddenly understood that I wasn't simply in the right places at the right times. God revealed to me in those short few minutes that He had put me in all those places. It is amazing to see how God had brought everything together in my life."
Slowly things began to change for him at McDonald's. During his nearly 21 years with Ronald McDonald House Charities, the organization had grown from $300,000 in assets to $1.6 billion. And as senior vice president of the McDonald's corporation, Ken had helped overcome some of the toughest challenges the company would ever face. But as Ken's faith grew, God made it clear it was time for him to leave.
And this time, when the telephone rang with an unsolicited suggestion of a job, Ken knew it was more than good fortune. Within half an hour after handing in his resignation to McDonald's, Paul called to tell him about a communications opening at BGEA."He didn't know about my resignation," Ken says. "It was like God told him, 'Call Ken.'"
After meeting with Franklin Graham in February 2007, Ken accepted the position of senior vice president of communication and donor ministries and watched as his world took a downward turn. A plunge in the stock market took most of his investments. Sethea developed a tumor on her esophagus and had to have surgery. Ken developed back problems and within six months had to have both hips replaced. His oldest son, Seth, an Air Force Academy graduate, was sent to Afghanistan.
Ken recognized these events as spiritual warfare. But they cast no doubt on his certainty that God had led him to BGEA.
"There was no question in my mind," he says. "All these things just brought me closer to God."
Even the death of Gabrielle, his oldest daughter. Ken looks again at her portrait on the table. "When my daughter died, it was like someone had taken a baseball bat and hit me in the chest as hard as they could," he says. "I thought of the others—Seth, Adam, Shante, Max, Shanel and Shelsea—and how much Sethea and I love them all, yet without one, all of our lives would be forever changed." He was comforted by the Scripture in Job 1:21: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord" (NKJV).
Ken's gaze returns to the window, to the tree branches swaying in the wind. "I wasn't qualified for any of this," he says of the jobs God has given him. "Now I realize that I am still not qualified, but the One who is has equipped me, loved me, and lifted me from the gutters of the world to some of the highest places in the world.
"He has allowed me to go through everything that I needed to go through so that I can do what I'm doing today, and that is to tell others about the love of God. I love seeing people come to Christ." ©2011 BGEA