WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on an encore presentation of my 2016 conversation with the chief of staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Ken Barun.
Ken Barun is self deprecating when it comes to his abilities. He told me I’m about as deep as a sunburn. Now, that’s a surprising statement coming from a man who served President Reagan in the White House and helped found the Ronald McDonald house charities, building it into one of the largest and most innovative charities in the world, and personally Ken Barun has made and lost millions of dollars himself. But for the first 25 years of his life, there was little evidence of these abilities. He spent nearly a decade—his teens and into his early twenties—as a drug addict. He was in and out of school and on his second marriage before he got clean and sober. Today, Ken Barun is the number two man at one of the nation’s largest Christian ministries. He reports directly to Franklin Graham. But Ken Barun’s path from drug addict to ministry leader was not a straight one. It’s not one of those I met Jesus and my life turned around kind of stories. Ken Barun’s story is a lot more complicated, a lot more real than that, and that’s also what makes it interesting. We began our conversation by talking about those rough early years in his life.
Well, Ken, we are in fact in your office in Charlotte and it is a beautiful office and this is a fabulous campus that you have here that God has provided for BGEA, but it hasn’t always been thus for you. You had a pretty tough upbringing, didn’t you?
BARUN: Yeah, for me personally, it hasn’t always been like this. God has been such a blessing to me and my family, however, through some very difficult times. I grew up in New York. I’m a Jew. My parents are orthodox Jews, grew up in the Bronx in New York. My father had to change his name when he was young because he went into the textile industry. And being in the textile industry in the south, there’s a lot of prejudice. Well, there’s prejudice everywhere against Jews and continues to be around the world, which is a surprising thing. But, I grew up in New York City—part of the time I moved to Westchester County and I was trying to fit into a crowd and I wound up being an average athlete. So I jumped in some basketball games. I wound up playing with some kids who decided that they wanted to smoke pot. Now this is 1961. It’s a long time ago. And I didn’t want to do it ‘cause I knew it was bad. But finally gave into peer pressure and started smoking pot, which led into years of substance abuse and addiction, culminating or climaxing at one point around the time I was 18 years old when my parents disowned me, kicked me out. And I went into a drug program in Houston, Texas as a result of a Catholic nun.
SMITH: Well, Ken, if I could interrupt you. How did you end up in Houston, Texas from New York?
BARUN: Oh, ok, yeah. It’s interesting. I was just struggling and by this time I was addicted to heroin and my parents kicked me out and I wound up going across country in a station wagon with a buddy of mine that got back from Vietnam. And he wanted to help me get off of the heroin and thought that if we went on this trip, he could help me do it. But I got deeper into it. And every city we went to, you seem to gravitate towards these type of people. So, we went across the country, did the whole Haight Ashbury thing back in the 60s, the hippie stuff, riding up and down the west coast in a Volkswagen van.
SMITH: And this would’ve been late sixties by now, right?
BARUN: Well, 60, this was 69, 68, 69 into 70. And we’d gone through Texas on the way. And I liked Texas, so he decided he was going to go surfing in Hawaii and that’s where we parted. And I went back to Texas with about 20 bucks in my pocket and looking for drugs. And wound up there. I met my first wife there and in a flurry of romance, drugs, we got married. I was 21, she was 18. She got pregnant immediately. So we had a baby and then I went back on drugs. I got off for just a little while. Got back on drugs.
SMITH: And even though you were raised as a Jew, I’m assuming that there was, that God was not in your life at this point. There was no religious upbringing that was tying you too closely, I guess, to your Jewish faith. And what other than this Catholic nun may be intervening in your life, were you considering spiritual matters at all at this point?
BARUN: No, Warren. It’s a great question because I did have a relationship with God, but God was more like my silent friend, my mysterious friend. I would always talk to God and I knew it was God. I was talking to God, but it was about things that were, you know, happening at the time, you know, please God do this, please God do that. And I remember when I went into the methadone program and this Catholic nun, Sister Amelia said, asked me what I was doing. I said, well, I’m coming here to get this methadone. And she says, I know God has another plan for you. And I said, well, he hasn’t revealed it to me, sister. And she said, if I can get you in this hospital, would you come in and get off the drugs? At this time I had divorced—my first wife had left me over a period of months with the baby that had been born. I was living in the streets of Houston, Texas, living under a bridge of all things. But I always talked to God and in my upbringing, the first 13 years of my life, I was raised in a very religious Jewish family. I was bar mitzvahed and knew a lot about the Old Testament stories. I didn’t ever really grasp the meaning of it as I do know. So she got me into the hospital. I had had all kinds of health issues as a result of the usage of drugs. And I remember sitting on the bed in that hospital and looking up to this imaginary friend of mine, God, and saying, God, if you get me out of this, I’ll never do it again. Now, it wasn’t the first time I’d ever said that. And it wasn’t the first time God had ever helped me out of things.
So I didn’t necessarily believe in God in the way that I do now, but I knew there was something. So, I went through. I got off the drugs, took about a month or so in the hospital, very painful. And the sister brought in some guys from a drug program based in Denver, Colorado who were about to open an office in Houston. And I became the first resident. I left the hospital. I had to work for a week to earn 60 bucks to fly to Denver. I went to see my wife during that time and she said she never wanted to see me again. I didn’t get to see the baby, but I went, I flew to Denver, went into this program. I stayed there. The program was three years long. I thought, oh, I’ll just stay three months and I’ll be cured. Three months, I realized I needed to be there a long time.
SMITH: And it wasn’t a Christian-based program in any way?
BARUN: No, no.
SMITH: It was still a secular program, but at least you were beginning to get your life back together at this point. Is that fair to say?
BARUN: Oh yeah, I was clean now. I put on some weight. I was working within the program and using all their therapeutic tools. And you lived there. You actually lived there with other residents for a long time and learning to live with other people, discussion, talk about your feelings. Those things are necessary when you’re trying to overcome these kinds of issues. But no God at that point. Some of the people there did have a strong religious base, but there were no professionals. We were all ex-addicts. We were all ex-convicts or were ex-prostitutes and all kinds of people. If we had more time, I’d go into the whole theory behind that, which I learned later. But it worked. It worked. You had people with peer pressure and if you could take it—not only physically, ‘cause it was a lot of physical work to maintain buildings and take care of the place, raise money—but it was also the emotional feeling. Cause when you’re growing up as a drug addict, you suppress all the feelings and you’ve run away from them. You run away from any difficult, any confrontational feelings, any difficult feelings and go back to using drugs or get out of town.
Anyway, I went through that and uh, the guy who started the program and had run it for many years, started to embezzle money from the program and I wound up firing him. By that time I had graduated from the program and stayed in the program as a counselor and then moved my way up—all approved by this one man who was like a dictator in the program. He and his wife. I got married again in the program. They ran this program—the husband and wife—very tightly and they prearranged a marriage for me and another woman. She didn’t even like me and she actually liked another person in the program. Who, Warren, it’s interesting. I saw them both last week, my Christmas vacation out in the west coast. She eventually married him, divorced me, and married this guy from 20 years before. So, a great ending to that story. Not such a great ending from a Christian basis, but a great ending for that story. I became president of the program.
SMITH: Well, so that’s pretty amazing to me, Ken, because, you know, here you are just, you know, not very much earlier than that you were a drug addict, homeless, living on the streets. I’m assuming you probably didn’t have much of an education at this point, right? I mean, you were in and out of school, probably. And yet somehow, some way, even then, there were some leadership skills that were in you, that God had given you, and that were somehow being seen by others as well, right?
BARUN: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a great question, too, because I think about that all the time. I did go back to college when I was in the drug program, graduated from the University of Houston, and had a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in psychology. But I had never used it. I mean, I loved school when I went back. I had started when I was 17 in college, but I never finished. I flunked out of school. But when I went back at an older age. It was so much more meaningful for the gifting that God gave to me. And I didn’t even realize this until just a few years ago were these leadership gifts that I could write books on. And it’s more of a coaching model than it is leadership by a, b, c, and d. Every leadership book that I’ve read talks about exactly the same things that I do, what I do naturally. I say naturally—naturally from God.
Right after, the next day I got a call from the White House. ‘Cause I sat with him for a couple of hours. Threw the schedule off. But the president wanted to hear my story. And I didn’t want to tell my story. I mean there were hundreds of other people there who had similar stories to mine, but he wanted to hear it. So he knew what it felt like, you know, he wanted to feel it. So I told him. All these guys got enamored with the story. And two days later, I got a call from the White House, asking me to come up. So I went up to the White House, never been there before, wearing donated clothes, you know, I eat donated food. I don’t get paid a salary, but we took enough money for me to fly to Washington and go into the White House. Amazing. And James Baker says, I wanted you to come up because my son has a drug problem.
So I said, well—and this is public knowledge now, so I’m not divulging anything confidential. So I sit down and talk to him. Eventually—skipping forward a lot—his son did very well, got him into a program. He did very well, and they’re always been grateful. We still talk every once in a while and correspond. But during that time, he took me into, I was with—the president was rehearsing for a press conference and Gergen—
SMITH: David Gergen?
BARUN: David Gergen was rehearsing him. And so you see these people who are still around. So we went over to the east wing of the White House where the theater is, never knowing that I would have an office above that theater for three years after that.
SMITH: Well, let’s get to that point because that meeting took place and the president and Nancy Reagan eventually asked you to come on staff.
BARUN: That’s right. Right after the Reagan Bush ‘84 team, which I joined to work on the campaign, they asked me to take a job in Washington. Didn’t know what job I would take, but I became deputy assistant secretary of public affairs for the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
SMITH: So this year is, what, 1985?
BARUN: That was ‘83.
SMITH: Okay. ‘83. So I’m just again, Ken just it’s a remarkable trajectory here, right? I mean, you know, you were a drug addict, you know, running a drug program and then by ‘83 you got a job in the White House.
BARUN: Yeah. It’s just amazing. I pinched myself every day when I walked into that White House. I moved my wife and kids—we had three boys—moved them up to Washington from Houston. My wife was very liberal, so it didn’t work out very well.
SMITH: So, which wife is this? I mean, forgive me for asking. Is this like your third wife now?
BARUN: That was my second wife.
SMITH: That’s still your second wife.
BARUN: That’s the one I married in the drug program.
SMITH: Okay. Right, right. So, but she—
BARUN: My first marriage lasted a year.
BARUN: Wonderful lady. Had a baby, but the drugs destroyed that. The second one was a prearranged marriage in the drug program.
SMITH: And she’s the one that moved to DC with you. And so you’re married and you’ve got kids now and you’re a relatively solid citizen by many indicators. But you still don’t know the Lord.
BARUN: No, no. But, I will say, my parents had thrown me out, disowned me. Now, they called me a couple of times during my White House days cause now they are very proud of their son and they wanted to reestablish the relationship. Most of the time they call because they wanted someone to go on a tour of the White House. I saw that as very disingenuous. But they saw it as having done the right thing, which they did. They did what most parents would never do and kick out their kid. So, I’m there at the White House. We start the “Just Say No” program. I’ve traveled with Mrs. Reagan all over the world and with the president—became very close to them. And then the White House, you know, it’s getting close to the end of the term and they want to know if I’m going to stay through the end.
And I said, no, I’m going to try to get a job now. I’m making more money than I ever made. But I had to take a cut when I went from Department of Health and Human Services where I worked about six weeks to a lower salary to work at the White House. And Jim Baker called me in and told me all about that. It was more money I’d ever made. I didn’t care, you know, it was a big deal. My wife cared, but I didn’t care.
Anyway, came to the end of the term and I got great stories about my kids and they grew up, you know, now it’s four years. They grew—big part of their life to come to the White House all the time. It wasn’t a real big deal. And they met the president many, many times. And it was time to leave. So I picked up a magazine—Business Week magazine. I started calling all the CEOs of the top 500 companies from my office in the White House. We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have computers. None of that existed, which is really hard to believe. But I dial 411, get the information and just start calling these people and saying, “This is Ken Barun from the White House. I’d love to talk to Mr. Jones.” “Well, what’s this about, Mr. Barun?” I said, “Well, just tell him it’s personal.” Well, I got seven job interviews out of that and I got five job offers. The one that I didn’t anticipate, which sounded ridiculous to me was McDonald’s. And the guy who hired me, Jim Rosebush, who was chief of staff for Mrs. Reagan, said, “McDonald’s is looking for an executive.” I said, “I’m not going to go flip burgers.” And like, I was a big shot. I was happy for anything, anything. And so I had these other job offers, but McDonald’s offered me a job putting together all their charitable work. So I thought it was amazing. I got interviewed like 12 times. The last one being with Joan Crock. Still no Christ in my life, but God, obviously looking back at it, was directing every single step of this.
SMITH: Ken, so this begins a new phase in your life—working for McDonald’s—and I want you to talk fully about that, but I can’t resist asking a little bit about Ronald Reagan. You know, today, Ronald Reagan has passed away of course. It’s 30 years after his presidency. A lot of conservatives have sort of mythologized Ronald Reagan, you know, try to turn him into something he wasn’t or the real man was lost there. You knew the real man. What was he like?
BARUN: The president was like my grandfather. I mean, if you can envision a perfect grandfather, a guy that would come up and tell you stories and sit down and, you know, you sit on his lap and talk about stuff, that was him. He never came across as an intellectual. He never came across in a pompous way. He never came across as an arrogant, know-it-all way. Pride was not one of his faults, but he was very politically astute.
SMITH: Yeah. And, you know, the one of one of the raps on Reagan was yes, he was politically astute and not genuine. That he was an actor, that he was brilliant as an actor, but really didn’t have the intellectual ability in other areas. Was that your experience? Did he grasp issues quickly? Did he understand, you know, when he was getting a briefing or hearing from you? Was he all there? Was he getting it?
BARUN: Yeah, I would say the most part he was, but he didn’t bother himself with all of that. He had a bunch of people around him that he trusted and he trusted their judgment. They were not people that were there to make themselves big shots. They were there to help him succeed. And he knew that. If they didn’t, and I can tell you a story about one of them who was egotistical and self-centered and was more worried about his reputation, he’d fire him. Or Mrs. Reagan would have some input in it. She had great discernment about people and loyalty to her husband. And that’s how he really made his mark in reading those issues was that he had people around him that he trusted, that trusted him, that loved him, respected him, and she got along with them.
SMITH: Well, and that’s another sort of part of the reputation of Reagan was that Mrs. Reagan, Nancy Reagan, was kind of a force behind the throne. That if you made her mad, you were in big trouble.
BARUN: That’s right.
SMITH: That’s true?
BARUN: That’s true. Absolutely. No question. And I’m not telling you anything that would be a surprise to people or a surprise to her. If someone hurt her husband—not her—or said something bad about her husband or didn’t vote for her husband. She didn’t want anything to do with them. And that’s the truth. She said he’s worked very hard to get where he is. We’ve all worked very hard to get where he is. People were always butter up to him and then they turned around and say bad things. She didn’t want anything to do with them. And there were people in the White House that I saw her get involved with. Now she always reminded us that nobody elected her as the president. She did her job as a wife protecting her husband and his health and I got great stories about that, too. She was like my mother. And remember my mother had disowned me. My father disowned me, so I adopted them and they became my mother and father and I treated them that way and she liked that. She really liked that. And I still correspond with her all the time. I sent her flowers the first day of every month and I saw her at the hundredth birthday celebration we had at the library and she was so wonderful to my wife and I. It was terrific.
We go to dinner and I said to him—he and his wife and my wife sitting there, my new wife now, or my bride of six months—and I said to him, sitting at the table, it just came to me. I said, “Paul, I thought—” at the risk of hurting my new wife’s feelings—“I thought that marrying her would be the answer to all of my issues and that that would take away this empty feeling I have inside. This very empty hollow feeling.” I said, “I wish I could say it did, but it didn’t.” And he said to me, “Ken, I’ve been telling you for 10 years what you need to do.” And I said, “I don’t understand what you mean. What do I have to do?” Because he never really talked to me about accepting Christ. He taught me all about Christ. But he never really gave me how to accept Christ.
So he explained it to me and I says, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Do we need to go to a synagogue or denounce my Jewish faith or do I need to build a chuppah and step on the glass or do something ritualistic?” And he said, “No, you don’t have to go to a church or anything, just pray with me.” And we sat at that table and he led me in the sinner’s prayer. And, Warren, I will tell you, it was the most incredible feeling. It was like going down that first hill on a roller coaster and then coming back up and being alive. Incredible feeling. And at that point I saw my family go in front of me, my parents, my brother, other people just passed in front of my eyes like a cloud. And I’m sobbing and water is pouring out of every pore in my body. And it’s just the cloud and as the cloud goes away and I look up, my eyes are all, you know, full of water and stuff, everybody else’s crying. But I felt like I had been reborn. And I’m not just using those words. I felt like I had been reborn and that’s when I knew what a born again Christian was.
SMITH: So, Ken, you become a Christian that night?
BARUN: Yup. I did. Became a Christian. I was so confused because I didn’t know what anything meant. You know, you become a Christian, you don’t automatically know John 3:16, you don’t know verses of the Bible that people expect you to know. That’s one of the issues that I wrestle with in evangelism is that when people get saved—and yesterday 12 people gave their life to Jesus at Franklin’s rally.
SMITH: I should mention that you and I are having this conversation the day after Franklin Graham did a big rally—part of his 50 state tour, the first day of his 50 state tour. And you were there with him.
BARUN: Yes. And so when you think about these people that just come to Christ, a lot of Christians assume that through osmosis or something that they understand all about being a Christian. Well, it takes years and years and years to assimilate as well as reading. And I’m just, I didn’t know anything, but I was excited. I didn’t really even understand what I was excited about. So the next morning I go into McDonald’s and my buddy who became the CEO, was my boss, and he was—the title was vice chairman of McDonald’s. And I went up to him. I said, “Jeff, I gotta tell you.” So he said, “What is it, Ken?” We were golf buddies and hung out a lot together. And I said, “Last night I prayed to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” He said, “What?” He said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because you’re a Jew.” I said, “No, according to what my friends tell me, I’m now a completed Jew.” And he just couldn’t get it. But he said to me, he says, “Well, I go to church every once in a while. I guess I’m an effin Christian.” So I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s the way it goes. That much I do know.”
My next call was to call my father. He was 85 and Orthodox Jew. My mother, raised the same way in the Bronx, in New York. Typical Jewish family. He’s living in Texas, actually. They tried to follow me, but I went to Washington. There’s a whole story behind that, another story. But anyway, I call him up and we had talked a few times so it wasn’t like, but I never did call him much. And then actually being disowned when I was in the White House, I told you that they called. But my wife is better at calling them than I ever was. So he called, he said, “Oh, Kenny, how are you?” I said, “Dad, I gotta tell you something—” expecting the worst to happen, going to get disowned again. I didn’t want to kill the guy. But I said, “Listen, this may not be pleasant for you to hear.” “What is it? What is it?” I said, “Last night I prayed to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
No sound came out of him. Then I hear him start to cry and it was like, oh man, you could have done anything but that. And then my mother picks up the phone and she—my mother is 93 years old. She looks like she’s 60. I’ll show you a picture later. I was just down visiting her and she’s incredibly healthy and she’s on the phone. “What did you say to your father to get them so upset? You know he’s not well,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
SMITH: Being a Jewish mother, right?
BARUN: Yeah. Oh, typical. Very typical Jewish mother and I said, “I got to get off the phone.” She said, “What did you say to him?” I said, “All right, just sit down for this.” I said, “I told him that last night I prayed to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord Savior.” Dead silence. He’s still crying.
She finally says, “He’s not crying tears of sadness. He’s crying tears of joy because 27 years ago when we were trying to find help for you with your drug problem, we found Jesus, too.” I could not believe my ears. He had used a term one time somewhere in one of the very rare conversations we had, he said Yeshua HaMashiach. But it never registered with me because I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know what that meant. Jesus Christ. I was blown away. But what an amazing, amazing ending—if it had been an ending—to this crazy story about what God will do in somebody’s life. And when I tell this story, Warren, it’s like being out of my body. It’s like there’s a book that I’m reading. It’s like a, you know, something that’s been made up for TV. Now, couple of years more, my friend Paul—the CEO that brought him to McDonald’s—gets fired. Paul then goes out to Rancho Santa Fe with his wife and kids. Winds up buying Panera Bread restaurant. God blessed him a hundred times over. I decide to retire from McDonald’s. He calls me that day and says, I’m going to go down and help Franklin Graham and Billy Graham with BGEA and Samaritan’s purse. Why don’t you pray about coming down, helping too?
SMITH: Eventually, Ken Barun did join the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2007 and according to the conventional evangelical narrative, he should have lived happily ever after. By now, he was rich from his long career at McDonald’s. He was a Christian and he was a senior executive with one of the most respected ministries in the world. Little did Ken Barun, still a relatively new Christian, know that he was about to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. His young faith would be tested and strengthened.
First, his wife got a tumor. Then, during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, a financial advisor Barun had trusted, lost more than $6 million—Ken Barun’s entire fortune. Then the most devastating blow of all.
BARUN: I come home from work one day and my oldest daughter—the one from our first marriage—we had made up over the years and gotten to know each other and rebuilt that whole relationship and loved each other. I get a call from my son-in-law who was pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time. He was a professional baseball player. He calls me and he never called me during the week and I knew he was on the road. He called me and said, “How quickly can you get the Scottsdale?” Where they live. I thought something happened to one of my grandkids. I said, “As quick as I can. What do you need?” He said, “The police came this morning to the house and Kylie,” that’s my granddaughter, my oldest granddaughter, “found Gabby,” my daughter, “laying still next to the bed and she was dead.” 38 years old. That was like a baseball bat hit me in the chest, just crushed me. Cause we had rebuilt this relationship we never had and it was going well and this is the love of my life. And it was like somebody, Warren, took a baseball bat and I went to my knees. I immediately went to my knees. I had some jibberish with my wife and said, “Well, I’ll go take care of this and be back tomorrow.” You know, something like that. And she died from the use of drugs. Cocaine and what was in the cocaine is what killed her. She had a heart attack. So all this stuff was just killing us and all we could do was get on our knees and pray and pray and pray and pray and pray.
SMITH: Ken, just kind of in closing here. I hope you’ll forgive me for kind of backing up to—I mean your daughter passed away of drug abuse, but y’all had reconciled before that. Do you know about her spiritual?
BARUN: Yeah, unfortunately, there’s some—as anything in my personal life, it’s very complicated. She was very much against my conversion. Not that she was Jewish, but she just didn’t—she thought I was phony. She thought it was all fake. She said—and one of these periods of, we had a lot of love, hate ‘cause she thought I had left her mother and caused her mother a lot of problems, which I did.
SMITH: Well, I mean, sure enough, you could probably understand why she would think that way.
BARUN: Right. But we were very young. I mean, her mother and I get along famously to this day.
SMITH: I guess the point that I’m getting to, or wanted to ask you to maybe comment on is that, you know, there’s kind of this, in the evangelical world, you know, things are bad, accept Jesus, things are good. Right? But your life indicates that like most people’s lives, it’s a whole lot more complicated, isn’t it?
BARUN: Yeah. There’s no cut and dry thing like that. We’d like it to make it that way. And I see it in the Christian world all the time. People are very judgmental and will pigeonhole people. We shouldn’t. We shouldn’t, but we do. If there’s any sin that we are all guilty of, it’s being predisposed of our opinions on people—from the way they look, the way they dress, the way they talk, where they’re from. You know, you always get a little ticker in there. Oh, he’s from New York, he must be this, or he’s from California, he must be this. Or he’s southern Baptist, or he’s Assemblies of God or whatever, they must be this. And I could care less what any of that stuff is. You know, there’s one God. There’s a Bible and every word of it’s true.
SMITH: Ken Barun, thank you so much for being on the program. What a powerful story. And I’m just sort of a testimony of God working over many decades in your life.
BARUN: And God working in the most mysterious kind of way. And, like I said, I don’t even feel like I’m talking about me because this couldn’t happen to anybody. And it’s a story and there’s so many more things that have happened. It’s not my doing. I’m as deep as sunburn and I don’t have any skills or qualities that I have on my own. Nothing. It’s the Holy Spirit totally embraced me and is within me because I couldn’t even have this conversation without that.