Q&A | Ken Barun knew extreme failure and corporate success before he found fullness in Jesus Christ
By Warren Cole Smith
Ken Barun served President Ronald 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. Now he is the chief of staff for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. But for the first 25 years of his life, Barun showed very little evidence of these profound organizational abilities. He spent nearly a decade as a drug addict. He got clean and sober, but it took even longer for him to come to know Jesus Christ. We started our conversation by talking about the early years of his life.
We are in your office in Charlotte on the fabulous campus of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). But it hasn’t always been this way for you. 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 were Orthodox Jews, grew up in the Bronx in New York. …
I grew up in New York City part of the time and moved to Westchester County. When I was there, I was trying to fit into a crowd. I wound up being an average athlete. I jumped in some basketball games. I wound up playing with some kids who decided they wanted to smoke pot. This is 1961—a long time ago. I didn’t want to do it because 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. My parents disowned me, kicked me out. I went into a drug program in Houston as a result of a Catholic nun.
How did you end up in Houston from New York? By this time, I was addicted to heroin. My parents kicked me out, and I wound up going across country in a station wagon with a buddy of mine who got back from Vietnam. 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. …
This would’ve been the late 60s? This was ’69. … We’d gone through Texas on the way. I liked Texas. He decided he was going to go surfing in Hawaii, and that’s where we parted. I went back to Texas with about $20 in my pocket, looking for drugs and wound up there. I met my first wife there. In a flurry of romance and drugs, we got married. I was 21; she was 18. She got pregnant immediately, so we had a baby, then I went back on drugs. I got off for just a little while, then got back on drugs.
Even though you were raised as a Jew, I’m assuming that religion was not in your life at this point. Were you considering spiritual matters at all? 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. I knew it was God. I was talking to God, but it was about things that were happening at the time. Please, God, do this. Please, God, do that.
I remember when I went into the methadone program this Catholic nun, Sister Amelia, asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m here to get this methadone.” She says, “I know God has another plan for you.” I said, “He hasn’t revealed it to me, sister.” She said, “If I can get you in this hospital, would you come in and get off the drugs?”
My first wife had left me over a period of months, with the baby that had been born. I was living on the streets of Houston, Texas, living under a bridge of all things. I always talked to God. In my upbringing, the first 13 years of my life, I was raised in a very religious Jewish family. I was bar-mitzvahed. I knew a lot about the Old Testament stories. I never really grasped the meaning of it as I do now.
She got me into the hospital. I had all kinds of health issues as a result of the usage of drugs. I remember sitting on the bed in that hospital and looking up to this imaginary friend of my God and saying, “God if you get me out of this, I’ll never do it again.” 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. I didn’t necessarily believe in God in the way that I do now, but I knew there was something.
I got off the drugs. It took about a month or so in the hospital, very painful. The sister brought in some guys from a drug program based in Denver who were about to open an office in Houston. I became the first resident. I left the hospital. I had to work for a week to earn $60 to fly to Denver. I went to see my wife during that time. She said she never wanted to see me again. I didn’t get to see the baby. I flew to Denver and went to this program.
The program was three years long. I thought I’d just stay three months and I’ll be cured. Three months in, I realized I needed to be there a long time.
It was a secular program, but at least you were beginning to get your life back together at this point. Yeah. I was clean now. I put on some weight and was working within the program and using all their therapeutic tools. You actually lived there with other residents for a long time. Learning to live with other people, talking about your feelings—those things are necessary when you’re trying to overcome these kinds of issues. … When you’re growing up as a drug addict you suppress all the feelings and you run away from them. You run away from any confrontational feelings, any difficult feelings, and go back to using drugs or get out of town.
You graduated from the program and then started working there? I became president of the program.
That’s pretty amazing to me because you were a homeless drug addict, living on the streets. Yet somehow, some way, even then, God had given you leadership skills that others saw in you, too. I did go back to college when I was in this drug program, graduated from the University of Houston. I had a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in psychology, but I never used it. 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. I was a bum. When I went back at an older age, it was so much more meaningful.
The gift 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. It’s more of a coaching model than it is a leadership by A, B, C, and D. Every leadership book that I’ve read talks about exactly the same things that I do, but I do them naturally. I say naturally, [meaning] naturally from God.
A visit from President Ronald Reagan changed your life. The president wanted to hear my story. I didn’t want to tell my story. There were hundreds of other people there who had similar stories to mine. He wanted to hear it so he knew what it felt like. He wanted to feel it. 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.
I went up to the White House having never been there before. I’m wearing donated clothes. I eat donated food. I didn’t get paid a salary, but we took enough money for me to fly to Washington and go into the White House. [Chief of Staff] James Baker says, “I wanted you to come up because my son has a drug problem.” This is public knowledge now, so I’m not divulging anything confidential. 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. They’ve always been grateful. We still talk every once in a while and correspond.
The president and Nancy Reagan eventually asked you to come on staff? That’s right. …They asked me to take a job in Washington. I 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. … I pinched myself everyday when I walked into that White House. I moved my [second] wife and kids. We had three boys and moved them up to Washington from Houston. My wife was very liberal, so it didn’t work out very well.
You still don’t know the Lord? No. … I’m there at the White House. We start the Just Say No program. I travel with Mrs. Reagan all over the world and with the president. I became very close to them. It’s getting close to the end of the term. They wanted to know if I’m going to stay through the end. I said, “No. I’m going to try to get a job now.” … It was time to leave, so I picked up a Business Week magazine and started calling all the CEOs of the top 500 companies from my office in the White House. We didn’t have cellphones. We didn’t have computers. None of that existed, which is really hard to believe.
I dialed 411, got the information and just started calling these people and saying, “This is Ken Barun from the White House. I’d like to talk to Mr. Jones.” “What’s this about Mr. Barun?” I said, “Just tell him it’s personal.” 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. 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.” Like I was a big shot. I was happy for anything.
I had these other job offers, but McDonald’s offered me a job putting together all of their charitable work. I thought it was amazing. I got interviewed 12 times. … Still no Christ in my life, but God obviously, looking back at it, was directing every single step of this.
You helped build the Ronald McDonald House Charities into one of the world’s largest charities, with more than $1.7 billion in assets. But your personal life continued to have it’s ups and downs. You divorced your second wife and remarried. One night you and your new wife went out to dinner with one of McDonald’s most successful franchisees, who was also a Christian. Tell me what happened then.
We go to dinner. … Sitting at the table, it just came to me, I said, “Paul, 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 it 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.”
He said to me, “Ken, I’ve been telling you for 10 years what you need to do.” I said, “I don’t understand what you mean. What do I have to do?” He never really talked to me about accepting Christ. He talked to me all about Christ, but he never really gave me how to accept Christ. He explained it to me. I say, “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?” He said, “No. You don’t have to go to a church or anything. Just pray with me.”
We sat at that table. He led me in the sinner’s prayer. I will tell you, it was the most incredible feeling. It was like going down that first hill in a roller coaster and then coming back up and being alive. Incredible feeling. 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. I am sobbing. Water is pouring out of every pore in my body. It’s just a cloud. As the cloud goes away and I look up, my eyes are all full of water and stuff, everybody else is crying. I felt like I had been reborn. I’m not just using those words. I felt like I had been reborn. That’s when I knew what a born-again Christian was.
You became a Christian that night? Yep. I did. Became a Christian. I was so confused because I didn’t know what anything meant. When 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 … a lot of Christians assume through osmosis or something that they understand all about being a Christian. It takes years and years and years to assimilate. I didn’t know anything. I was excited. I didn’t really even understand what I was excited about. …
My next call was to call my father. He was 85. Remember, an Orthodox Jew. My mother was 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. I call him up. We had talked a few times. I never did call him much, actually, being disowned. When I was at the White House I told you that they called. My wife is better at calling them than I ever was.
He said, “Aw Kenny. How are you?” I said, “Dad I’ve got to tell you something,” expecting the worst to happen. I’m going to get disowned again. I didn’t want to kill the guy. I said, “Listen, this may not be pleasant for you to hear.” … I said, “Last night I prayed to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” No sound came out of him. I hear him start to cry. It was like, man, you could’ve done anything but that.
My mother picks up the phone. 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. She’s incredibly healthy. She’s on the phone, “What did you say to your father to get him so upset? You know he’s not well.” … I said, “All right. Just sit down for this. I told him that last night I prayed to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and 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 and 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.” 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. What an amazing, amazing ending, if it had been an ending to this crazy story about what God will do in somebody’s life. 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 something that’s been made up for TV.
A couple years [later] my friend Paul … goes out to Rancho Sante Fe with his wife and kids, winds up buying Panera Bread restaurants. He now owns  Panera Bread restaurants. God blessed him 100 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 and helping too?”
What a powerful story. It’s just sort of a testimony of God working over many decades in your life. God working in the most mysterious kind of way. Like I said, I don’t even feel like I’m talking about me because this couldn’t happen to anybody. 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. The Holy Spirit totally embraced me and is within me. I couldn’t even have this conversation without that.
To hear Ken Barun talk more about his relationship with Ronald Reagan and his reunion with his long-lost daughter, listen to his complete conversation with Warren Cole Smith on Listening In at worldmag.com/player.php?podcast/7565.