A few months ago, when the “Chauntel’s Story” video was making the rounds on social media, an angry Jacksonvillian called regional indie band SUNBEARS! out as being the house band at The Church of Eleven22 and asked for an explanation. A vitriolic string of comments followed, full of rumor and speculation.
SUNBEARS! founder Jonathan Grant Berlin soon joined the conversation, insisting the band at The Church of Eleven22 consisted of musicians from many local bands, not just the SUNBEARS!, and that he was dedicated to equal rights and opposed to the message in the video. Of course, he was labeled a hypocrite and riddled with challenging questions, the most prevalent being, “How can you support the church without implicitly – even explicitly – supporting their message?”
I decided to find out.
It was with some reluctance that Berlin agreed to this interview. He is, by any measure, the most visible member of the church band, being the frontman and mouthpiece of a nationally touring group that has, among other things, worked with The Flaming Lips on a recent Beatles tribute album. His stature in the original music community is undeniable, as is his activism (he and his bandmates have played several gay pride events and drag shows, and Berlin himself has gay and transgendered family members and friends).
His participation in this story came with a condition that is part of any journalistic inquiry, but was of special importance here. Some of the background we covered in our conversation was to be kept off the record, and that request is honored here. But Berlin wanted to put to rest some of the rumors swirling around this most unfortunate video.
Folio Weekly: You’ve said you’ve been a part of Church Eleven22 since the beginning. Can you be more specific about that?
Jonathan Grant Berlin: Sure. In the beginning – really my role hasn’t changed – but in the beginning, there was one service happening at a church called Beaches United Methodist, and they started this kind of college-aged group and the called it Eleven22. They hired a bunch of contract musicians in town. I was hired to play guitar, so yeah, I was there from the first service back in 2008 playing guitar with them.
Who are some of the other locals who play at the church?
Jared Bowser [drummer for SUNBEARS! and other locals] plays there. There’s all kinds. About 25 different musicians there. Different services, different weeks. Some of the guys from Fort Stories play there. Kind of a hodgepodge.
You said your wife and you met there and you said your child also goes to daycare there. Is that correct?
On Tuesdays, he goes to childcare there, during the day. I met my wife, actually, at a SUNBEARS! show. And it just so happens she knew who I was ’cause I was playing guitar at the church.
And what’s your status now? Do you both attend?
Yeah, we’re both still there.
So let’s get to the root of this. You’ve seen the video, you’ve heard the criticisms. I’m not sure what your position is. Can you clarify?
A lot of the things that have been said are, “Jonathan Berlin, of SUNBEARS! is a music pastor at Church Eleven22,” which isn’t the case. I haven’t gone through seminary, I don’t preach there, I don’t counsel people. My business there is strictly just music related, playing guitar. … That’s one of the things that been misrepresented.
Many people have said that you couldn’t have been involved in the church for that long without knowing that they had some sort of anti-gay agenda. Not just the typical church position of gayness being against the laws of god, but this very specific protocol of trying to change people’s sexual orientation, as evidenced in the video we are talking about. Why didn’t you come out immediately and state publicly that you did not agree with their position and was considering leaving your post at the church?
To my knowledge, even now, to my knowledge, there’s no such program for reprogramming gays. Or trying to bring in gays and reprogram them and tell them you can’t go to heaven till you’re not gay anymore. Or any of this stuff. I have no idea about any of that. I don’t think that that’s happening. As far as Chauntel being shipped to Uganda, Church of Eleven22 has an orphanage in Uganda, and that’s where everybody goes to take care of orphan kids year ’round.
The video that Chauntel participates in is pretty explicit. She says, in so many words, I still love women, but I can’t love women and come to Jesus. I have to make this sacrifice. It’s really hard to misinterpret her position in this.
It is, and all I can say is in my experience, I’ve played at churches as long as I have been an adult, and left churches over issues in the past, and to my knowledge, since 2008 when I started playing [at Eleven22], I never heard anything like this going on.
When you saw the video, how did it make you feel, considering you have family members and friends who are gay?
I was troubled by the video, because I didn’t know if the church knew what could be inferred from it on the negative side, I know the [people] there well, and really they just have a heart for wanting to bring people to Jesus. Homosexuality has never been talked about from stage, preached about or anything to my knowledge, even in my frequency there. So when I saw the video, it was a bit of a head-scratcher for me.
Why didn’t you, right away, come out and condemn their position or, at the very least, state publicly that you do not agree with their agenda and are taking a stand against it?
When I found out about the video … my immediate reaction was to talk to the video people and the social media people and be, like, “Do we understand? Is this the statement the church is trying to make?” Like you said earlier, it seems like they have more than your Southern, “You can’t be gay” [ideas]. It seems like they are taking it a step further. The church has known my position – doing Pride Fest Downtown, doing the Harvey Milk Fest – and they’ve never said anything to me.
It still doesn’t answer the question. Why didn’t you take a strong stance against it?
OK, sorry, getting back … [I went to the communications department asking], “Do we understand what this is saying? Do we want to be posting this online? … This is going to potentially upset people.”
That was a few months ago. And here we are now. Here we are months later. That question was asked of me [by the church], “We know Jonathan plays guitar here, he’s from Riverside, he’s the liberal, blah blah blah. Why now are people upset about this video?” I said, “People are always going to be upset about this video, it just took them four months to see the video.”
They’ve pulled the video now, and this whole thing is being re-evaluated. The core leadership group, I’m not involved with that group, but I was, like, “This happened, this is getting crazy.” I think I posted something about, “Hey, I’ve said these things. I’m upset, I was offended.” I’ve voiced that I’m offended. It’s taken a long time for them to figure out what they’re saying or whatever they’re doing. I’m not sure, but something is being done about it. I just know that they were taking [the video] down. That’s Step 1.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Berlin recently left The Church of Eleven 22.