Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett were blessed by a laying on of hands during a ceremony of “holy union” at the Sacramento Convention Center, on January 16, 1999. The service challenged the United Methodist Church’s ban on clergy performing same-sex union ceremonies. Co-officiants included 68 clergy from the California-Nevada Conference who had charges brought against them and a trial one year later. Also co-officiating were former clergy who had surrendered their orders due to their sexual orientation, UMC clergy from other areas and clergy from other denominations. Nine churches from Southern California and Michigan to Brooklyn held services of solidarity at the same time. [See profile of Jeanne Barnett.] Celebrating their love and faith Jeanne and Ellie, with the help of many volunteers, organized and invited 1,200 guests.
Eleanor (Ellie) Lundgren was born in 1935 in Oakdale, California, a small farming community. The family moved to Santa Cruz where her father bought a boat to start a commercial fishing business. He fished all along the Pacific Coast and was gone long periods of time. Their home was five blocks from the beach, Ellie’s favorite hangout.
The family was actively involved in the Nazarene Church. Ellie's mother was the pianist for the church so they were at church whenever the doors were open: Sunday morning for Sunday school and worship; Sunday evening for youth group and worship; Sunday evening; Wednesday night for prayer meetings; and twice a year the family went to ten-day revivals.
Ellie had a brother two and a half years older and a sister six years younger. They were all immersed in this conservative religious milieu: they could not dance, play cards, go to movies, wear jewelry or makeup. There was a large extended family in the area with frequent family gatherings. No social contacts were allowed outside of church and family. Ellie’s older brother rebelled against this strict upbringing, leaving home early to join the U.S. Army. Ellie went to girls church camp at nearby Beulah Park Campgrounds in the summers--first as a camper and latter as a counselor.
Growing up, Ellie did not think too much about sexuality. She recalls being fascinated at camp one summer by a girl everyone called “Butch” and the rumors that she was a lesbian. In high school she thought her gym teacher was a lesbian, but then was disappointed when she married a man. She did hear some talk about being bisexual and thought that might work—being attracted to women but happily married to a man.
Ellie graduated from high school in Santa Cruz, California. She specialized in personal accounting and later had her own business. She was age 17 when she graduated and was married one month later. Her husband, Robert (Bob) Charlton, was the nephew of her mother’s best friend from church. Bob was in the Navy and stationed at Treasure Island. After the wedding they moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico so Bob could finish his education and become certified as a teacher. Three children were born in the six years they lived there. Ellie worked in accounting and bookkeeping. Ellie and Bob decided that the Nazarene Church was too strict and so joined a Presbyterian Church. They moved to Magdalena, New Mexico, when Bob got a teaching position there and Ellie was hired as the secretary to the Superintendent of Schools. After two years Bob soon discovered that teaching was not a good fit, so they moved back to California, to the Sacramento area, where he got a position as a draftsman at McDonnell Douglas and Ellie went to work at Aerojet General in the accounting department. Later Ellie was Director of the Women’s Health Center connected to UC Davis med school.
When the children got to the age that they wanted to participate in afterschool activities at church, the family started attending Rancho Cordova United Methodist Church, nearer to their home. Ellie got very involved there--teaching an adult class and serving as coordinator of family ministries. Eventually she became president of the United Methodist Women (UMW), and chair of the Council on Ministries.
Around 1975 there was some local media attention around issues of sexuality and churches. A series of articles by Harvey Chin in the United Methodist Reporter told of his negative ideas about gays in the church. Ellie was discussing this with other newly elected UMW district officers as they were driving to a training when one of the women said, “You know I’m bisexual.” Hearing this revelation from someone close to her, Ellie started on the journey of looking at her own sexual orientation. She stayed married for the next seven years even as she came to recognize her strong attraction to women. She and her husband separated in 1982, but stayed married another two years in order to solidify their financial situation. Then they filed for divorce. After experiencing some negative attitudes by the church, Ellie left church for a while and entered a short relationship with a woman who was not churched.
Ellie met Jeanne Barnett in 1984 at a “Women Over 35” gathering. It was a group that met in homes monthly for a potluck and one had to be screened and approved in order to attend. She and Jeanne quickly became friends and went to women’s music concerts. Jeanne was a member of St. Mark’s UMC and invited Ellie to attend with her and soon Ellie joined the church. Both women utilized support groups such as Sacramento Area Women’s Network and CAT-PAC a political action group. As they spent more and more time together, Jeanne started talking about wanting to be more than friends; Ellie moved more slowly. Later when Jeanne was planning a vacation to Montana to visit her sister she decided to drive and asked Ellie to come along. They agreed that this trip would be an opportunity to see what it would be like to spend extended time together. It was good.
Together with Jeanne, Ellie for the first time attended a national Affirmation (United Methodist for gay and lesbian concerns) meeting. It was in Evanston, Illinois in 1985—the tenth anniversary of the organization. There Ellie and Jeanne both found a strong connection with the group and so thereafter attended the semiannual meetings, all around the U.S. Both of them served in leadership positions in the organization with Ellie becoming treasurer.
At General Conference in 1992 in Denver, four progressive groups worked together as the Warm Room: Women Clergy, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries and Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA). In the WARM Room, people could gather, rest, and sell items to help finance the four groups. Ellie was in charge of sales, scheduling volunteers, keeping records of sales, and distributing money to the four groups.
Jeanne was appointed in 1988 to the four-year United Methodist Study Committee on Homosexuality. Ellie often traveled with her to the meetings and hearings around the U.S. Not sure how much info about this committee would be public Ellie decided it was time to come out to her mother before she found out from someone else. This was a scary decision knowing her mother's beliefs about gay people. Ellie invited her mother to visit her for the weekend when Jeanne was in Boston at the committee's first meeting. With a lot of tears, laughter and sharing the weekend with mom went well. Several years later Ellie was very pleased when her mother introduced them to her visiting pastor as "my daughter Ellie and her partner Jeanne." Acceptance from mom at last! In 1992 Jeanne was part of the committee's presentation to General Conference. The General Conference voted to table recommendations from the committee.
The 1998 General Conference adopted a provision to prevent clergy from providing same-sex blessings or holy unions. However, since this was added to the Social Principles, the general understanding was that this provision was not legally binding. Unfortunately, a short while later, the church’s’ Judicial Council ruled that the prohibition against holy unions between same-sex couples was church law.
The pastor of St. Mark’s UMC, Don Fado, mentioned in his sermon the next Sunday that he believed the UMC position was wrong and he would perform services for same-sex couples when asked. Ellie and Jeanne had been together for fifteen years and had been talking about some kind of service to honor their commitment. However, this new situation led them to decide that now was the time. They wanted to have a service of commitment. They talked with Don Fado who agreed to do the service. They set the date on Martin Luther King Day, four months away.
Don extended the invitation to retired clergy to join him in officiating at the service. As the information circulated, active clergy asked to co-officiate also. Ellie and Jeanne wanted to invite everyone they knew to the service. However, rumors started that conservative groups might disrupt the service. A friend agreed to keep a registration list and checked off guests as they entered the Convention Center. Every Reconciling Congregation in the area received an invitation for its members to register and attend. Ellie and Jeanne invited all of their friends, there were many. Jeanne was Lay Leader of the California/Nevada Annual Conference and Ellie was Chair of the Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) and a Trustee on the conference Board of Trustees. Both had worked on the recent capital campaign having contact with all 400 churches in the Conference. Both had worked in Sacramento for the state and before she retired Jeanne had been Chief of two State Divisions, Unemployment and Manpower Development. AND they had been active in women's and gay groups in the area. Soon there were more than 1,200 guests registered.
They decided not to have the Holy Union at St. Mark’s since a few members there were concerned about breaking church law... and St. Mark’s was not large enough. Friends helped them scout other churches in the area, but they could not find one that was large enough or willing to have a gay commitment service. They finally went to the Sacramento Convention Center. They proposed having the service in the exhibit hall where the United Methodist annual conference was held. But there were scheduling and logistical problems with using the exhibit hall, so the convention staff suggested Jeanne and Ellie consider the theatre—it would be easier and less expensive. A catered reception was quoted as $25 per person. A wedding cake and coffee would cost over five dollars per guest. With 1,200 guests expected they decided to serve cookies and punch at $1.50 per guest. Beside the other costs the city of Sacramento required security that was another $2,000. Ellie and Jeanne were very thankful for the many donations of music, dancing, flowers, decorations, service participants and co-officiants.
Over 100 United Methodists and several other denominations had clergy co-officiate. Decorations featured paper lace of the Methodist cross and flame emblem. As the service ended multi-color rolls of crepe paper were thrown over head to form the rainbow connection.
During the service 300-600 supporters circled the theater forming a "Circle of Love." The was led by three probationary ministers who were asked not to co-officiate for fear they would lose their ministry statistics. Rev. Jim Lawson, a well known social activist, trained members of the Circle of Love in non-violence early that morning. Jim Strathdee wrote the “Ballad of Ellie and Jeanne”. He and his wife Jean sang with help from the audience.
Ellie and Jeanne were later honored by a number of community groups and churches. They had five more glorious years together. After Jeanne’s death in 2003, Ellie spent two years taking care of her mother. In 2006 she participated in an Affirmation spiritual growth retreat where she met Bev Reddick. They quickly bonded and decided to spend the rest of their lives together. When Bev retired from her work as a deaconess addressing social justice in Iowa, they moved together to a retirement community; Brooks Howell Home owned and operated by United Methodist Women in Asheville, North Carolina. They visited five or six United Methodist churches looking for Welcome. Settling on Abernathy UMC in West Asheville. Ellie and Bev held a small gathering of church members to talk about LGBTQ issues. Ellie also produced a church concert with Jim and Jean Strathdee who had presented special music at the Holy Union.
When a new minister was assigned to Abernethy Ellie and Bev did not feel as welcome and had trouble with the non-inclusive God language. On the look again for welcome they found and joined First Congregational United Church of Christ because that denomination was inclusive of same-sex marriage and leadership by gays and lesbians.
Eighty-four years old in 2019, Ellie Charlton is still a faithful contributor to the UCC adult Sunday class and an activist for women’s equality and justice in forums and on marches. While a leader in the movement, she also volunteers for small jobs wherever her gifts are needed. Although change happens in what seems to be a long time, Ellie still believes that women in the church can and do, in a peaceful and persuasive way, make social and political change happen.
The mother of three, Ellie has four grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, and one great-great grandson.
A recurrence of breast cancer led to Ellie's death in Asheville on November 2, 2021.
(This profile was initially written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Ellie Charlton and then edited and augmented by Ellie and Bonnie Schell.)
Biography Date: March 2019