Pastor Farris Whitehead found time for our visit at Eastern Heights Church on a Sunday afternoon. He had preached that morning, just finished two committee meetings and was leaving for Southlake, Colo., to conduct a marriage seminar the next day.
A pretty heavy schedule for a man who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma seven years ago — and was told that he could be dead within as little as six months.
To understand his fight and faith, we need to start at the beginning.
Farris was the sixth of eight children born to Othe “Preacher” Whitehead and his wife, Virgie.
“I was born west of Cleburne at home,” Farris said. “My dad was a share cropper farmer. I was sort of the peacemaker between my brothers and sisters — but I was terribly shy by nature.”
Farris began school at Lillian, then attended Cleburne, Venus and Alvarado schools until he finished the fifth grade.
“I started sixth grade at Cooke Elementary in Cleburne,” he said. “I had Mrs. Laurian Gilliland as my teacher. She literally changed me from an A-B-C student to a straight A student.
“How did she do that? She loved me and believed in me. She thought I could accomplish anything — and I did, for her. She absolutely changed my academic life forever. I graduated from high school with honors because of her.”
Work for Farris, he said, was “another row to hoe, pulling bolls, hauling hay, pulling corn and shocking oats.”
Rediscovering his faith
His father was not a preacher, but had the nickname because he was so faithful to attend church. Farris and his siblings were taken to church for every single service.
As Farris matured, he became less fervent about going to worship.
“I even took jobs on Sundays so I wouldn’t have to go. I became sort of desensitized to church because I was too familiar with it. Looking back, I know that I had no relationship with God.”
Susan Conley, two years behind Farris in school, had moved to Cleburne from Lubbock when she was 12. They met at church.
“Farris was so very shy,” she said. “I think I did all the talking. He had the sweetest personality and was so nice looking, but I had promised God that when I married, it would be to a believer.
“As we sat in worship at the Open Door Assemblies of God in Rio Vista, I prayed to God and told him that if Farris didn’t become a Christian within the next week, that I would not date him anymore. We had dated for six months already.
“As I prayed I noticed that Farris got up and I watched him walk down to the altar call.
“Wow! God was talking to both of us at the same time.”
Farris recalled, “I knew then that God wanted me to preach. I was 16, and when I was asked to give my testimony at a youth meeting, and began to speak, two people were saved. It was supernatural. Even though I was so shy, God worked through me somehow.”
Farris began preaching immediately, he said. He preached at the jail and at youth meetings — anywhere he could.
He made a decision. He knew a pastor needed a wife. He loved Susan — but she was only 15 and he was still a senior in high school.
“Nobody asked us to wait,” he said. “It was as if her parents and mine understood. We married Feb. 17, 1967, when Susan was 15. I was 17 by then.
“We rented an apartment and never had to borrow money from our families. We also did without a lot of things, with only $10 for food each week. I was in Distributive Education and worked at a feed and wholesale grocery store.”
After he graduated from Cleburne High School, the couple moved to Waxahachie so that Farris could attend Southwestern Assemblies of God University. Susan had taken extra classes in the summers and was able to graduate that year at Waxahachie High School.
They rarely saw each other.
“Our waking time together was about 30 minutes a day,” Susan said. “Farris took 12 semester hours and was in college most of the day and then worked at Texas Instruments in Dallas as a machinist until 3:30 a.m. He’d come home and go to bed for only a couple of hours and go to school again.”
He said, “There were times at work that I was allowed to study for my classes. I couldn’t have done it, otherwise.”
Every six weeks he brought her home to Cleburne to visit her parents, Robert and Violet Conley.
During college Farris worked with Teen Challenge and served as associate pastor of a mission in Cleburne.
“The House of Prayer was set up in the old First Methodist Church building in Cleburne,” Farris said. “We made apartments in it and housed the homeless. I went out on the street, to the pool hall, and led people back to our center.”
Farris was licensed to preach by Eastern Heights Baptist Church in 1969 and served as an evangelist for one -and-a-half years working with a youth ministry and with area Southern Baptist and Independent Baptist churches until 1980. He established two Christian bookstores in Cleburne.
He graduated from Southwestern Assemblies of God University in 1977 and has been a minister for 45 years. As senior pastor at Eastern Heights Church in Cleburne for 31 of those years, he has seen the church grow from 130 to 700 members.
“A strong leadership team has been raised up,” he said. “Eastern Heights Church has become an equipping center and is a strong, cell-based church with a vision for taking Cleburne for God.”
He has traveled on mission fields preaching crusades with nationally known leaders. He has hosted conferences in Kenya and Uganda, East Africa; American Samoa; and with an apostolic team in Poland. He has also helped to equip churches in Victoria and in outlying areas of Old Mexico and in the Yucatan with the Mayan Indians.
He has worked with a fellowship of local pastors in Cleburne and serves on the steering committee of the Antioch Oasis International network of churches. He continues to serve as chaplain for Operation Blessing of Johnson County.
The Whiteheads have four children all serving in ministry, Stephanie Sepulveda, Marcy Hughes, Daniel Whitehead and Barry Whitehead, and 15 grandchildren.