Ken Barun has a remarkable story. Born into a Jewish Orthodox family, Ken’s life journey has taken him from a drug addict on the streets to working at the White House to being an executive of Ronald McDonald House Charities. When Ken came to faith in Christ in 2000, his life changed drastically. Today, Ken is the chief of staff for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and married to the love of his life, Sethea. Ken and Sethea have had many adventures and experiences together, and they desire to preserve their stories, faith, and values for their children and future grandchildren.
The following is one of the stories FamilyArc captured for the Barun family’s private archive. It has been used with permission.
Visiting the Holy Land
If you’re around Sethea Barun for any length of time, you’ll probably hear the phrase she’s coined about her marriage to Ken:
“I never knew when I said ‘I do’ that I would do as much as I’ve done.”
It has become the title she’s given to their marriage, and it couldn’t be more true. Since they got married, Sethea has traveled extensively, met amazing people, and found so much joy in experiencing those things with the man she loves. Traveling with Ken has opened up her eyes to the reality that the world is much bigger than her familiar Illinois home.
One of the most memorable and influential trips for Ken and Sethea was their first trip together to Israel. It all began when they attended the annual National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville. They met a man named Jonathan Feldstein on the escalator of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and struck up a conversation. Jonathan worked for the Israeli Red Cross, and he invited them to visit him in Israel and attend a party at the ambassador’s house in Tel Aviv.
Ken had been to Israel once before with Franklin Graham. Knowing that Ken grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, Franklin asked Ken what he would do if he ever made it to Israel.
Ken said he would kiss the ground.
Sure enough, when he stepped off of the plane for the first time, he did just that.
“Israel is a wonderful place,” Ken said. “You feel really at home and comfortable there, even though there are a lot of different cultures and languages. There’s something about it that touches your heart.”
When Jonathan extended the offer to Ken and Sethea to go to Israel together, they were thrilled to accept. During their two-week trip, Jonathan took them through the Red Cross Blood Center. They learned about the process of donating blood and saw how it is separated and stored.
“It was so fascinating,” Sethea said. “I was in awe. I think if more people understood how it works and how many people it can help, they would be willing to give.”
The Jerusalem Post interviewed Ken about his visit to Israel and featured him in an article called “Spreading the Good News.” In it, Ken encouraged Israel to emphasize the good things they’re doing, such as the blood center. He said Israel gets a lot of bad press, but the world needs to know all the positive things that are happening there as well.
An Affirming Experience
Jonathan arranged for a former brigadier general in the Israeli army to take Ken and Sethea around Jerusalem. Along with all the major historical and tourist sites, they were also able to see locations most people can’t access.
They walked through the places that mark the milestones of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and burial. It was a profound experience to see significant biblical locations such as the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. The trip still impacts their faith today.
“It was very invigorating,” Ken said. “It’s interesting to see what Jesus went through. You really get affirmed in your faith by going there.”
Ken said he understands why people love Israel so much. He has met people who have traveled back eight or 10 times—often to visit the same locations. There is something about the experience that is addicting. To some extent, Ken can see why Israel has been such an object of war and strife.
“It’s the most fought over land in history,” he said. “When you go there, you almost see why. It’s a very special place.”
Ken and Sethea were both baptized in the Jordan River, and they enjoyed picking berries at Golan Heights and floating in the Dead Sea. They visited Jonathan’s house for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Ken had grown up with the prayers and rituals associated with Shabbat, but it was an amazing first experience for Sethea. They also got to attend synagogue and pray at the Western Wall.
Ken and Sethea returned to Israel in August 2014. They now have several friends there—some Orthodox Jews and others Evangelical Christians. On their second visit, they experienced even more of the local culture by staying in their friends’ homes. The Holy Land is truly special place for the Baruns, and they urge everyone to make the journey at some point in their lives.
When Ken took a job with the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, he told Sethea he didn’t think they would travel as much as they had when he was an executive for Ronald McDonald House Charities. Yet they’ve traveled and done more than ever in this stage of life. Ken enjoys quoting Sethea’s “I never knew” mantra back to her whenever they take a trip.
But, Sethea said, “He always says it wrong.”
Click here to learn more about how FamilyArc helped the Barun Family begin archiving their legacy.