After Fifty Years of Preaching

By Don Willis

In Ephesians 3:1-13, Paul recounts the wonderful grace of God that permitted him, the least of all the saints, to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. In the beloved song, “I Love to Tell the Story,” the author proclaimed the same blessed honor.

One of the favorite Scriptures often quoted by my late brother, Cecil, proclaims, “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). Those that obey are forgiven of their sins (Rom. 6:18) and made servants of righteousness. Obedient individuals become heirs “according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:7). What a wonderful privilege to be a son of God, in relation to Jesus Christ, and possess the hope of everlasting life (Rom. 1:15-16)!

Personal History

Fifty (50) years ago, the first Sunday of December, I began to preach every Sunday the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ, being supported by brethren. As a youngster of but ten years, Ned Fairbarin (then in Trinity, Texas) came to Groveton to teach a weekly ladies Bible class. Mom took the children with her, and brother Fairbarin began having Cecil and me make little talks. We were both baptized August 17, 1944.

Luther Blackmon moved to Groveton to preach, and he encouraged Cecil and me by permitting us the opportunity to give short lessons during pre-assembly studies and occasionally during worship assemblies. Bill Thompson also positively affected us! Area churches began inviting us to speak as needed. We preached in Trinity, Apple Springs, Possum Walk, and other little community churches.

Antioch, Texas had a local assembly of God’s people. The late Darwin Kerr (then with the Lufkin Postal Service) was preaching the second and fourth Sundays. My uncles, Jim Money and George Pillows, were attending there. Uncle George was one of the elders. I borrowed one of my dad’s logging trucks and went to assemble with the church the first Sunday of December 1950 seeking permission to preach the normal times assigned to brother Kerr, as he had to spend so much time at the Post Office in December.

The brethren told me I could indeed come those two Sundays and preach and even permitted me to preach that Sunday. I preached all of my prepared sermons that day. Thus, I had to do much work (in addition to my public school studies; I was a senior at Groveton). I went back the second Sunday, and they asked if I desired to come the third Sunday. By then, brother Kerr heard that I was going there to preach; thus, he sent word that he would not be coming back. This was his way of assisting me to get into full-time preaching. I was only 16 years of age then. But thanks to the wonderful brethren there and at their encouragement, I began preaching for them every Sunday. Soon, I realized that my school load, in addition to preparing two sermons a week, was too heavy. I asked them to permit me to come over two Sundays a month — and they so arranged this with me. Centralia (about five miles further down this same dirt road) invited me to come there the other two Sundays. I continued preaching in East Texas until I left for Florida College for the fall session in 1951. It was at this time that I met Marilyn Riggs, a beautiful young lady, the daughter of one of the elders at Kashmere Gardens in Houston. 

At Florida College, I was invited to preach at Center Hill, Florida. I preached there every Sunday (even without having an automobile), riding to Trenton with brother and sister Louis Garrett and one of the brethren would come pick me up. Bible class would already be going but was turned over to me as soon as I arrived. I preached my first funeral while there. Upon completion of Florida College in 1953, I worked that summer with the Seventh Avenue church in Miami. I heard that Palatka, Florida was looking for a preacher. I called and made an appointment to preach one Sunday for them and then went home to see my family. Palatka called and invited me to preach, paying me $50 per week. I had to purchase an automobile and live in a boarding house, but I was excited! We had a wonderful work, many were baptized into Christ and the church grew. During the Florida stay, I was invited to conduct two gospel meetings: one at Melrose, and one near Pensacola. I went back to Texas to see my family and Marilyn. David Tant heard that I was going to Texas. He called and told me that the church had ceased to exist in Alto, Texas. He proposed that he and I conduct a gospel meeting there. And we did, David led the singing and I did the preaching. There was a gentleman that came to almost every service, Fanning Yater Tant, the father of David. I did not know brother Tant, and would have been frightened out of my boots had I known who he was. At that time, brother Yater Tant edited the Gospel Guardian in Lufkin, Texas; his printer was Bob Craig. We were successful in getting the church re-started Alto, and it is still meeting.

Marilyn told me she did not desire to move to Florida. I called a meeting of the men, and told them that my heart was not in the work. I was in love with this young lady in Texas. I asked them if they would release me of my commitment. They asked if I knew someone who would take my place. One of my classmates, Bill Lambert, was interested. He preached the next Sunday. They hired him to work and on Monday I left for Houston . . . to be married! Upon my arrival, she told me she would not marry me until I was employed. Smart lady!

In August 1954, the West End congregation in Houston was looking for a preacher. Brother Alexander and I both asked for the work. I was 20 years of age. The day I tried out, I went to the home of an East Texas family, Grover and Betty Lowry, and baptized Grover that afternoon. The church requested me to work with them. Connie Marshall and Elmore Stern shared the song leading duties. Elmore and Grace Stern had a young daughter (eight years old, as I recall) named Carolyn. We became friends. Marilyn and I were married in November 1954. We had two children born while living at West End, Cathy and Don, Jr. In 1959, we moved across town to Greenwood Village where we labored two years. 

The Highlands church in San Antonio (after being encouraged by my uncle, Alton Thompson) invited us to participate in a two-year training program. W.L. Wharton was the preacher and Roy Spears (formerly of Lufkin) was one of the elders. Here we met many of the present members that are at O’Connor Road. After our two years were up, in 1963 we moved to the Pleasant Valley church in Wichita, Kansas where we labored three years (Charles was born there, and now preaches in Knoxville, Tennessee). 

In 1966 we moved to Floral Heights in Wichita Falls, Texas for six years (Christie was born there). We had never been treated so graciously by a group of people. We had a grand five years of labor. I was invited to many gospel meetings in area churches. I enrolled in Midwestern University for two years of study. During this stay, we were invited to Corpus Christi for a gospel meeting and met Frank Dansby and his wife, Carolyn Stern Dansby. They insisted we stay in their home for the meeting. 
In 1971, we moved to Vivion Road in Kansas City, Missouri, where we remained for two years. I had a throat failure and the doctor told me I would have to cease preaching for a few months. We moved back to Wichita Falls to give my throat time to heal. Once the doctor told me I could preach again, the Bellaire church in Houston invited us to preach and in 1973 we began a two-year labor. While laboring here, the church grew very rapidly, and we started the Alief church.

In 1975, we moved to the Woodland Hills church in Conroe, moving next door to Roy Cogdill. We stayed in one house until we moved to San Antonio in 1994. While in Conroe, the church sent all the members to begin the Woodlands church, where my son-in-law is now one of the deacons. In 1981, we assisted in starting the New Caney church where we preached for thirteen years. New Caney church began during a slow economic period and interest was very high. The church made an agreement with the school system to use one of their facilities with the understanding from them that within one year we had to have plans for constructing a building or to leave the school building. In 1982 we decided to sell bonds and construct a building for worship. The economy was so bad that we were told the bonds could not be sold. We worked very hard and all the bonds sold within three days. We moved into the building in March 1985. The church grew rapidly. It became necessary to enlarge the building, and we added nine classrooms. At this time the eldership was enlarged to six, with twelve deacons. The renovated building would seat close to 300. Attendance reached into the 200s fairly soon. Luther Bolenbarker (whom I had baptized while at Greenwood Village) had spent his military time and had moved home to the Houston area, later preaching in Hunington, Texas. Luther conducted three meetings for us, and we baptized many people.

Frank Dansby began to encourage us to move to San Antonio. We had lived in one house for almost 19 years and it was home! The work was going great. I had conducted two meetings with the O’Connor Road church in San Antonio. The elders invited us to move, and we accepted. Luther Bolenbarker moved to work with New Caney.

Our move to San Antonio in 1994 has been most pleasant. The church has paid off its property, and we now assist in the support of eight gospel preachers, in addition to my support. God has richly blessed us for the past 50 years of our life. What a joy it is to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ.

God has richly blessed our lives with four children, ten grandchildren, and a host of friends. It is so wonderful in almost every place we go, we will know at least one family there. God indeed has a very large and friendly family. Now, I am confident that you know a lot more about us than you ever desired to know. Bear with me in my folly!

There are some things that have not changed in fifty years of preaching. These are some reassuring truths:

We still have the same problem of sin. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Romans 5:12 proclaims that death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. Sin abounds around us. Mankind is prone to sin. The lust of sin afflicts all individuals (1 John 2:15-17). Children of God fight daily against sin and often fail. If one says he has no sin, he deceives himself and knows not the truth (1 John 1:7, 10). Sin, thusly, has problemed mankind since Eden. And, sin is still a problem for mankind today.

We still preach the same Christ. The Word (Jesus) was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2). Jesus made all things (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2-3). Jesus was born of a virgin (Matt. 1:18-25). Jesus challenged the religious leaders and the hypocrisy of his day (Luke 2:46-47). Jesus performed essential miracles to attest his Deity (John 20:30-31). Jesus died for our sins (John 3:16; 14:6; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus was raised and exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:32-33), and now is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Jesus is the one before whom we all shall stand (2 Cor. 5:10).

We still preach the same gospel. It is divinely revealed (Gal. 1:11-12). The gospel remains “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). When one obeys from the heart, he is then made free from sin (Rom. 6:17-18). One must not change the gospel (Gal. 1:6-10; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 9; Rev. 22:18-19). It will judge us in the last day (John 12:48).

We still preach the same plan of salvation. Jesus saves (John 14:6; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). The plan of God that saves includes faith in Christ and the gospel, repentance from sins, confession of Jesus’ Deity, and baptism for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). One cannot be wrongly taught and scripturally baptized (Acts 19:1-5).

We still preach the same church. Jesus promised to build his church, our spiritual relationship (Matt. 16:18). The church had its beginning in the hearts of men and on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38, 41, 47). All the saved were added together. The church of Christ is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:22-23). There is but one body (Eph. 4:4; 2:16).

We still preach the same form of spiritual worship. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). Worship involves singing, teaching, communion, contribution, and prayer (Acts 2:42; Eph. 5:19). All Christians still worship regularly upon the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

We still preach the same work of the church. The church is organized to work (Eph. 4:12) for (pros) the perfecting of the saints, edification; for (eis) the work of the ministry, benevolence; for (eis) the building up of the church, evangelism. Denominationalism has sought to make the church a social organization, designed to be day-care centers, entertainment or family centers, with church support of benevolent and educational organizations. Let the church be all that Christ ordained, rather than attempt to fit it to human desires.

We still preach the same organization of the church. Jesus Christ is Head of the church (Eph. 1:22). Christ ordained elders and deacons in every city (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). Elders are told to feed the flock of God (Acts 20:28-29). Members are told to obey those who have the rule (Heb. 13:7); of course so long as they are in subjection to Jesus Christ. Elders watch for our souls! The Lord did not ordain one eldership over the universal church, nor one eldership over the city; but one eldership in each assembly.

We still preach the same hope. Jesus saves (Heb. 5:8-9; 1 Cor. 15:1-2)! What a wonderful refrain! Titus 1:2: “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” Jesus said, “I will come again       . . . Where I am, there ye may be also! God gives victory in Christ (1 Cor. 15:57). Divine confidence is given to those who obey Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-18).


What a wonderful joy to have spent one’s life in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ! Truly, “I love to tell the story.” And now I pray that you will obey the gospel of Jesus Christ; that we would live obediently to our Lord; that we would take advantage of the cleansing in Christ; that we enjoy the most wonderful fellowship in the world; and, that you would pray for me, in continued work as a preacher of righteousness.

Preached by Donald Willis on December 3, 2000      O’Connor Road church of Christ, San Antonio, Texas

Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 2  p10  January 18, 2001