Ella Simmons is a proud daughter of Louisville, Kentucky. She’s also an educator, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and the first female General Conference vice president. To spend time with this kind, soft-spoken, compassionate human being with a big heart for people is to sit face to face with a history maker whose life has been led by her Creator.
Hailing from a tight-knit Baptist family, Simmons was raised with five brothers, which prepared her for what was to come. As an elementary school student during desegregation, she wasn’t always aware of the political and social unrest related to integration brewing all around her. “Our neighborhood was racially mixed, so I didn’t understand exactly what was going on, except that I was going to attend the other school where my other friends, my White friends from the neighborhood, attended. For me, it was neither positive nor negative, just a change. But my parents were not so sure that it was safe, because of the kinds of things that were happening in the country,” she says.
Wanting to instill confidence and grit in their little girl, Simmons’ parents allowed her to walk to school by herself. But what she didn’t know was that they followed her in secret. “Thy would walk me to school that way so that I would feel independent, but they didn’t trust society. As it turns out, things were very peaceful in our town, at least in our neighborhood,” she adds.
Simmons met her husband, Nord, in high school. But these were the years during the Vietnam War, and life was changing rapidly for many in their circle. “My husband and I were great friends in high school, buddies. Right after high school, as we were about to part ways to go to different colleges, we suddenly realized that we really wanted to be together,” she says. “[This] was the Vietnam War era. And lots of our friends were being shipped off to war; many of them were being killed. And so, of course, being swept up in this great romantic saga, I thought, Oh, he’s going to go to war. So we decided that I would refuse my scholarship to Andrews University, and he would refuse his scholarship to Hampton University. We were just going to get married and to do our education along the way.” As one would imagine, this caused great distress in Simmons’ family. But the young couple was determined. So at the age of 18 Simmons became a married woman.
She had accepted the Adventist message just a few years before through an evangelistic meeting. “I know it was providential because God placed this big tent literally across the street from our home. Prior to that, for about two years, I had been trying to comprehend certain biblical truths on my own and wrestling with discrepancies between what I was reading and learning from the Bible and the lifestyle practices of my Baptist family and friends that did not exactly match what I was reading,” she says.
“I started on this journey [as a young teen], trying to trace the history of the Sabbath and figu e out how changes had come about. At one point we had a rabbi and one or two Christian pastors come to our high school to do a panel discussion on religious differences. We questioned them about religious beliefs. I can remember to this day my impromptu question: ‘By whose authority was the Sabbath changed from Saturday, or the seventh day, to Sunday, the fi st day?’ It blew everybody back. But I had been thinking about these things privately prior to that. And so through findi g such answers to my questions I became Adventist.”
Well into her career in education, Simmons heard God’s call to Oakwood University (then Oakwood College), where she took on the role of vice president for academic affai s. After the 2000 General Conference Session in Toronto, Canada, Simmons was invited to serve at La Sierra University as vice president for academic administration and provost. “We lived in Riverside, right there near the university, and we loved every moment of it and enjoyed La Sierra immensely. But then we felt the calling to come away. It was an Abraham and Sarah experience. We didn’t know where we were going; we had no clue. God just told us to leave. And so we sold our house just prior to graduation that year.” With no clear path ahead, Simmons was looking forward to teaching at the graduate level. She even had invitations to serve as president at other Adventist universities. But God said no to those options.
“The the GC president, Jan Paulsen, called me into his office and surprised me with what he was considering in terms of my being nominated to serve in the General Conference as vice president. My initial reaction was just to laugh. Dr. Paulsen said, ‘I’m serious. What would you think?’ After collecting myself, I said, ‘Well, if this should come about, I would do what Nord and I always do—we would pray about the situation. If God calls us, we will serve.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s all I need to hear.’ ”
When her name came to the floor at the session, Simmons fully expected a barrage of negative commentary. Husband Nord, who could not bear to witness that, didn’t even attend that business session. But there was nothing of the sort. “After a few positive speeches the yellow cards went up. From my view, it appeared that a sea of yellow cards went up, and I thought, to my surprise, They’re doing this. The next thing, I was called to be introduced. Moving forward, I prayed, ‘Lord, don’t let me trip and fall walking across the stage to this platform.’ ”
As the first and currently only female vice president to serve the General Conference, Simmons feels that her childhood training with five brothers equipped her to meld into “the brotherhood” and hold her own. She was, from the first, welcomed and supported by her male vice presidential colleagues.
But in segments of the larger African American Adventist community, news of her appointment was not met with enthusiasm initially. “These were those in the community who felt that I had been part of some conspiracy to keep an African American man out of the mix. Initially there was some resentment. Some others felt that if they were going to choose a woman, that I should not have been the one,” says Simmons.
“I had to rely on this being God’s decision, not Elder Paulsen’s, not a Black caucus’s, not women’s ministries’,” she adds. “It had to be from God directly to me. And I’ve always felt that that was the case. I never aspired to this. I was never looking for it. I was blindsided.” In a short time and through open conversation, such issues surrounding her election were resolved.
Now 17 years on, the time has come for Simmons to get some much-needed rest. As part of her role as a vice president, a considerable amount of her time has been devoted to international travel and involvement in other General Conference departments. She is, perhaps above all, a tireless advocate for women and people of color, and opposes racism, classism, and nationalism in all their varied forms, especially in the church. Additionally, she will continue to write for the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists and perhaps get to teach a little.
As she reflects on her service to the world church, Simmons has great burdens on her heart. “This world is in turmoil, violent social upheaval; and often we as Adventists simply say it’s because we’re living in the last days, and shrug it off. That hurts me. My heart aches when we do that. We are here for a specific purpose and must stand up and face the crises for what they are here and now, as early Adventists did. We must let it be known through word and deed—mostly deed—where we stand, where God stands, on these issues and atrocities. We must live that love to which Jesus has called us, all of these many nationalities and races and eth- nicities and gender and age groups in the Adventist Church. Let’s live it and let the world look on and say, ‘We can’t get along here, but look at those people living in harmony and unity. What’s happening with them? How can they do that?’ And then we can say, ‘It is Jesus, and Jesus alone. Don’t you want to know Him? Don’t you want that too?’ ”
Wilona Karimabadi serves as an assistant editor at Adventist Review Ministries.