WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
On January 15, 1891, Vanderbilt Benjamin Simmons was born to Frank and Cornelia Simmons as one of their 22 children. He married Sarah Smith in Brunswick, Georgia in 1914 and went on to father eight children. V.B. Simmons served as a successful lay leader until he was received on trial in the Savannah Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South on November 25, 1931. After being ordained a deacon in 1934, V.B. Simmons was ordained an elder in the newly formed Methodist Church in 1939. His appointments included Sterling, Chipley, Barnesville, Greenville, Mt. Zion, Speedwell, Pulaski, Hiltonia, Millen, Dublin and Gordon. Rev. Vanderbilt Benjamin Simmons retired in 1953 and died in 1957.
Essie Cornelia Simmons was born to Rev. Vanderbilt Benjamin Simmons and Sarah Simmons in Waynesville, Georgia on June 2, 1923. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education from Clark College in Atlanta and from Fort Valley State College and a Masters of Education degree from South Carolina State College while working for 34 years as a teacher and principal in the Screven County High School. In 1972, Essie Simmons was admitted to the newly formed United Methodist Church as a lay preacher in the South Georgia Conference. She was appointed to the Leet’s Chapel-Oak Grove circuit where Nannie B. Williams UMC was added in 1974. Because of Essie Simmons’ fruitful ministry, in 1977 the circuit was renamed the Simmons Circuit in her honor. Rev. Essie Simmons was appointed to Cordele in 1984 and to the Waynesboro Circuit in 1985 before completing a Course of Study degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1993. This led to her appointment as the first female, African American elder in the South Georgia Conference. In addition to serving local churches, Rev. Essie Simmons was also active in the Black Methodist Church Renewal program and received numerous honors and awards. She died peacefully on October 16, 2012, and was buried in her hometown of Waynesville, Georgia.
Sharma D. Lewis was born to Charlie and Alethia Lewis in Statesboro, Georgia in 1963 as the fourth of five children. Her mother is the daughter of Rev. V.B. Simmons and the family, devotedly Methodist, attended Brannen Chapel. Lewis graduated from Mercer University with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1985 and Master of Science degree from the University of West Georgia in 1988. While waiting to hear if she would be accepted to medical school, Lewis’ aunt, Rev. Essie Simmons, encouraged her to enter the ministry and Lewis entered Gammon Theological Seminary instead of medical school. She earned a Masters of Divinity in 1999 and was ordained elder in the North Georgia Conference. After serving as both associate pastor and senior pastor of Ben Hill UMC, Lewis was offered a cross-racial appointment at Powers Ferry UMC making her both the first African American and the first female pastor at this predominately white congregation. After another appointment in McDonough, Georgia, Lewis was awarded the G. Ross Freeman Leadership Award as the first female winner. In 2016, she was one of five new bishops elected at the quadrennial gathering of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. Lewis was elected on the first ballot, and according to news reports, there was cheering and applause when her election was announced. It was an historic moment, as she was the first African American woman ever to be elected to the position of bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She was also the first African American woman bishop to be elected within The UMC since 2000.
Rev. V.B. Simmons, his children, and grandchildren could have been angry. They faced racial discrimination at every turn. He entered the ministry in 1931 with a denomination that had fought to retain slavery and wasn’t ordained elder until 1939 when a new denomination allowed him to participate but only in segregated terms. And, yet, he passed faith, hope, and love onto not only the members of his churches but also his children. And that faith, hope, and love made all the difference. His daughter, Rev. Essie Simmons, entered the ministry during the transition between the Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church, a time when the south was very reluctantly ending racial segregation but still retained discrimination against women. She could have been angry. She had many reasons not to minster to those in need but she allowed faith, hope and, love to change the church and society in ways that seemed unimaginable in the not too distant past and that made all the difference. Bishop Sharma Lewis, granddaughter of Rev. V.B. Simmons and niece of Rev. Essie Simmons, had choices in education and career that her relatives could only dream of, had fought for, but she chose to devote her life to the same faith, hope, and love that was instilled in her by these relatives and, again, it has made all the difference.
What are we passing on to our children and grandchildren? What can we pass on that will transform peoples’ hearts to become a Christ-centered, faithful body of believers? What will take us to places that we can only dream of today? The only answer to those questions is the same answer it’s always been. I sincerely pray that this is one old thing that is new again.
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at email@example.com.