The Baruns face a series of heartbreaking events that would challenge anyone and undo many.
Not long after Ken and Sethea moved to Charlotte, a lady who worked at the BGEA asked Ken if he’d ever heard of spiritual warfare. Ken wasn’t familiar with the phrase, but he would soon come to understand it well.
“I pretty well deduced what it was,” Ken said. “There were going to be spiritual things coming against us.”
About a year and a half prior, Sethea had a miscarriage. She and Ken wanted to have a child together, and they were absolutely thrilled when they found out she was pregnant. Sethea cautioned Ken that they shouldn’t tell anyone until after they’d reached the three-month mark, but they couldn’t keep the great news to themselves.
Everyone was so excited. The boys were already predicting the baby would be a boy and talking about how quickly they could get him onto the ice to play hockey.
When Sethea lost the baby, she was completely devastated.
“I felt like I let the whole family down,” she said. “The baby was going to be our wonderful connection between everyone.”
Looking back, Ken and Sethea view the miscarriage as the beginning of a series of events that would threaten to undo them.
A Dark Season
Just before they left for Charlotte, Sethea developed a tumor on her esophagus. It kept her from swallowing and cut off her oxygen if she turned her head to the side. She went to the hospital and had surgery to remove the tumor, which turned out to be the size of the doctor’s thumb.
While Sethea was still in hospital recovering, the doctor came in and said that he had great news: The tumor wasn’t cancerous. The news was both a relief and a shock, because they hadn’t even considered the possibility of cancer.
Around the same time, Ken started suffering from severe back pain. He consulted several medical experts and finally discovered he needed to have his right hip replaced; it was grinding bone on bone. He got a second, confirming opinion in Chicago, and replacement was suggested right away.
During this time, the Billy Graham Library opened on June 1, 2007, and on June 14, Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, passed away. There was a huge funeral for her. Several former U.S. presidents came, and Ken was asked to lead them around. He’d only been on the job a short time, and he hadn’t had his surgery yet, so he had to walk with a cane.
Two days after arriving in Charlotte, Ken had his right hip replaced, and then three months later, his left hip was replaced.
Next, the economy tanked, and the Baruns began experiencing financial difficulties in addition to their health problems. Ken and Sethea still had not sold their house in Chicago. Ken had also invested a very considerable amount of money—$6 million—in a company that was supposed to partner U.S. and Chinese companies in order to get the Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. He had received advice from his financial advisor not to do it, but he felt he knew better, having been to China several times to meet with the companies involved. But when the market crashed, they all backed out of the deals, and the guy who was running the company Ken had invested in took off with all the money.
Ken and Sethea had bought a house in Charlotte for $1.5 million that would be valued at $20 million in California, but because the house in Chicago still had not sold, they were now in a financial crunch.
We’re just done, Ken thought.
But if Ken and Sethea thought their financial struggles would be the worst of it, they were in for a shock.
On May 20, 2009, Ken was pulling into the garage after getting home from work. Before he had even gotten out of the car, his cell phone started ringing, and he heard Sethea screaming at the top of her lungs from inside the house. She was on the phone with Shanel who was saying that something terrible had happened, but she wouldn’t tell Sethea—she wanted to talk to Ken.
Shanel told Ken that his oldest daughter, Gabrielle, had died. Gabrielle, or Gabby, was married to Scott Schoeneweis, who was the pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time, so her death was all over the news. Shanel had seen a scrolling banner on ESPN that said Gabby had been found dead in her home.
She was only 39.
“I felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a baseball bat,” Ken said. “It just killed me.”
The autopsy revealed that Gabby died from an overdose of cocaine. It was a devastating blow for the Barun family. She left behind Scott and their four children.
Within 15 minutes of finding out the news, friends from the BGEA were at the Barun’s house to pray with them.
Ken and Sethea had been packing to head to Sethea’s youngest brother’s wedding but changed all their plans at the last second. Franklin Graham fired up a private jet for them, and they headed to Arizona to lay Gabby to rest.
It was absolutely miserable.
Four months later, Ken and Sethea went back to Arizona for a Christian conference and took advantage of a chance to see their grandkids. They were still mourning Gabby’s death, but they fortunately had God to lean on. It was all so unbelievable, how so many bad things had happened so fast. Ken said if he hadn’t had God to listen to him, he wouldn’t have known what to do.
At 7 a.m. on September 20, 2009, Sethea’s phone rang. She answered it and then started screaming and handed the phone to Ken. It was news that her sister, Sandi, had passed away in the middle of the night.
Sethea was hysterical. Sandi was only 53.
Sandi had had the flu, and she died of an accidental overdose of over-the-counter medications. She had thrown up and then taken more medicine, including NyQuil, Sudafed, and a sleeping pill. Sandi was a very petite woman, and she was dehydrated from being sick. The combination of medications went straight to her organs and shut them down in her sleep.
Her husband came in and saw that she was sick, but he did nothing about it and left the house to go to off-track betting. He came back later and went to sleep in another bedroom.
The next time he checked, she was dead.
Sandi’s husband asked Ken to call all the relatives to let them know, including all of Sethea’s 10 remaining siblings.
They had another funeral to plan, and it was an acutely painful time for their family.
It seemed as if the chain of tragic events would not come to an end. When people would wonder aloud about what could possibly happen next, Sethea would say, “Don’t ask.”
The next major blow in this dark season came after Seth lost his job. He had graduated from the Air Force Academy and served for five years. When he got out, he had a management position for a while but lost it due to the Great Recession. The struggling economy made it difficult to find a new job, and Seth ended up moving in with Ken and Sethea while he tried to figure out his next steps.
He was a captain in the Air Force Reserve, and he went over to the National Guard to see if they had any openings. They didn’t, but Seth learned that the Army was hiring. The Army took him and gave him a bonus at the same rank.
He came home with the news but added, “I have to go to Afghanistan.”
He was assigned to an engineering group, and his role involved clearing IEDs from roads for a year.
“He would call us while he was over there and say they were under rocket attack,” Ken recalled. “We could hear the sirens going off.”
“It took us to our knees,” Sethea added. “It really did. We were begging and pleading with the Lord to help us.”
Then Ken got a call from his son Max’s mother who said Max had to go into a drug program because he was addicted to pain pills.
Ken remembered thinking, What’s going on? Since I became a Christian and came down here to work for this Christian organization, everything is messing up.
A Financial Miracle
Through all of this, finances were still a glaring concern for the Baruns. They had been praying that God would get them out of their house in Charlotte because they couldn’t afford it anymore, but not a single person came to look at it.
In their lowest financial moment, they had 17 cents left in their checking account.
They did have some other money in savings, but almost all of it had been lost in the failed business venture. They tried to sue the guy who fled with the money, but that didn’t work out. Legal fees were high, so Ken and his three partners settled for a piece of a company that is no longer worth anything.
Ken was emotionally drained. He had no idea how they were going to pay their bills, and he was praying hard the entire drive home one day.
Lord, I don’t know what you are trying to do, but I trusted you to help me, he prayed.
He got the mail from their box at the end of the driveway and then continued up to the house. In the stack was a letter from the Internal Revenue Service.
His heart sank.
Lord, I was praying for relief from this. What could possibly be next?
He opened the letter and, to his amazement, found a check for $56,000.
The IRS owed him the money as a result of some stock options sales that McDonald’s had arranged three years before. Too much had been taken off for the taxes—hence the refund. Ken and Sethea knew it was nothing short of God’s doing.
“That was the defining moment of breaking that spiritual warfare that was over us,” Ken said.
They were able to use the money to pay their bills and set some additional funds aside. They’re incredibly thankful that they have not had to face financial struggles of that magnitude since.
Ken and Sethea believe this dark period in their lives was spiritual warfare, and they say it was directly related to Ken taking the position with the BGEA.
“We could tell that Satan wanted no part of me to be in the ministry,” Ken said. “In some ways, that says to me, ‘Well someone thinks I’m valuable.’ Satan must think I have some skills. I’m thinking, ‘I’m this Jewish guy—what am I doing here?’”
Over the years they’ve learned the biblical principle of pruning based on John 15:1-2, which says, “‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful’” (New International Version).
Though they sincerely pray that they will never have to experience a season like that one again, they believe that God used it, in part, to keep them in Charlotte when they desperately wanted to get out, and to grow their faith and marriage in many ways.
“The Lord will continue to cut your branches so you’ll flourish,” Ken said. “We were pruned, and God kept us in Charlotte. He forced us to commit to stay because we couldn’t move.”
Ken and Sethea say that those incredibly painful situations have allowed them to relate to other people who are hurting and offer them some peace and comfort. As dark as it was, they see now how God is continuing to use that time to shape them and the people around them.
“All these things have helped us grow stronger in our faith and in our relationship together,” Ken said. “Those circumstances could push people apart, but they have brought us closer together.”