"These Songs Are For Me": An Interview with SueAnn Shiah
For people who have been hurt by actions of the church in the past, hearing worship sung by those perpetrators of violence can be a painful experience, not a peaceful one, and certainly not one that brings people closer to God.
Filmmaker and music producer SueAnn Shiah understands this. A Taiwanese American and bisexual person in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), she spent her years at Belmont University involved in the predominantly white, straight space of Indelible Grace Music, the music collective that creates much of the worship music used across the PCA denomination.
SKEW writer Rachel Virginia Hester chatted with Shiah about how these experiences moved her to create A Liturgy for the Perseverance of the Saints, a forthcoming album of reclaimed hymns. The album, slated for release on June 22, takes common hymns and recasts them in Shiah's voice and vision, creating an intimate and sacred listen.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Rachel: SueAnn, I’m interested in why you wanted to do this album to begin with. How did it begin?
SueAnn: I was at the women of color retreat in LA with CCDA [the Christian Community Development Association, an organization that trains Christians to work in and restore under-resourced communities], and my friend Angie Hong spoke about the need for Asian American women to be leading worship and how these perspectives are totally missing. The biggest names and the most popular songs are mostly written by straight white men. The way that we understand and engage God is part of the fullness of the body of Christ, and if we only worship using this specific type of voice, then we’re missing out on different kind of ways to understand God. That clicked a bunch of things for me, because I was processing what she had been saying...
[My RUF] community was a community that makes worship music for our denomination. So the way that Hillsong is to mainstream evangelicalism… Indelible Grace [the worship collective that grew out of Belmont RUF] is to the whole PCA, the Presbyterian Church in America.
OK, I didn’t know that.
It’s a very PCA culture, which is its own subculture, so most people don’t necessarily even know about it. But Indelible Grace is a record label and has really changed worship music. Their whole methodology is that they take old hymn texts and they put them to new music. This was like a huge part of our community. I think there’s like 12 Indelible Grace records out now. You can go into pretty much any PCA church and you’ll hear Indelible Grace Music being sung. Like, I was in Taiwan at a church that was loosely affiliated with the PCA and I would hear songs that my pastor had written in Nashville.
That’s how far the spread is. And Kevin [Twit, founder of Indelible Grace Music], my pastor, because he had started this music movement and was well-known within our denomination and our community, he would be asked to lead worship at conferences all the time, like The Gospel Coalition National Conference and Mission to the World, which is the PCA’s missions organization.
This was all part of the fabric of our world, and I, to be honest, was never really a favorite of Kevin’s. I realized that there is a standard of beauty within music, which is American, white American. And I innately knew that I could never “out-white” the white people. I could try really, really hard but I could never outwit them at their own game.
Sometimes I see these internet debates about the murder of black people by police, and a lot of white people often say, “Well, you weren’t there! There must be more to this. Maybe they did deserve this.” And I ask, “Is that what you need to do to justify these things in your head?” Because the same things could be said about Jesus and his crucifixion.
The only times Kevin did ask me to engage with Indelible Grace was when they had made a couple Chinese translations to certain songs and then they were thinking about re-recording some of the songs with Chinese. We never did this, but he had a conversation with me once, like, "Oh, maybe you could sing them, because I don’t know who else I would get to sing them." Which is ironic because I’m Chinese-American. I do speak Chinese but I’m not highly literate. I’m not that comfortable singing in Chinese most of the time.
To me, this kind of exemplifies the issue of what an Asian American experience is: You can’t “out-American” white Americans but you also aren’t Asian enough; you can’t perform Asian-ness enough to satisfy being Asian...
So when Angie [Hong] said, “We need Asian American women’s voices,” it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say that, that our experiences as being diasporic, bicultural Asian Americans is a position to see the world. It’s not just a diluted American position or a diluted Asian position. It is a unique position unto itself to which we can understand God, and it matters. It made me realize, that’s why I never did it: because no one ever told me that what I could offer mattered.
I’ve worked in the music industry for almost eight years now, and I know how many barriers of entry there are to doing music. It takes so long to learn to play an instrument well enough, to practice, to learn the technical stuff, to make the connections, to have access to equipment and technical things. I’ve spent all this time becoming a producer and equipping myself to empower other people to make music. So I had all the tools but I never felt that what I had to say mattered enough to use those tools on myself.
I realized the road is clear for me, I just need to be willing to take it. So I decided that I wanted to do a hymns EP. This was September 2016. I wanted to get comfortable in worship leading again. I didn’t want to deal with having to write a lot of songs and then having to be hyper-critical with my own songwriting. I wanted to choose songs that already existed, that I already resonated with, that I already was finding my own voice in, even if I wasn’t the person who was writing them.
I noticed that a lot of the songs that you picked were songs that were common in Presbyterian churches, except for maybe two of them, like “Give Me Jesus” and “Were You There?” Why did you pick those songs, despite their absence in the Presbyterian canon?
“Give Me Jesus” and “Were You There?” were gifts to me, and after I researched these songs, I realized both of them are traditionally African American hymns.
The story behind how “Were You There?” came into my consciousness began in the summer of 2016. One of my friends invited me to go with her to Montgomery to an Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) event. They have this lynching memorial that just opened, but they’ve been working on it for many, many years. One of the things they’ve been trying to do is gather soil from every site in America. They have these “dig days” where a lot of people come and EJI assigns them a location to go gather soil from. That’s what this was, and me and a couple friends from my faith community drove to Montgomery and we participated. They give you a sheet with the person’s name, if they have it, and what information they have about the lynching and directions to get there.
All those songs that say “God is on my side, He is mighty,” are another way of supporting cis, hetero, white supremacists. But when we sing it, it means something totally different
The first location we went to was a public park. So we were trying to figure out what part of the park to dig from because it’s so large, and it occurred to me that we should just find the biggest, oldest tree that we can. We find it, and I start digging the soil and putting it into the jar. We’re kind of awkwardly going through this process. We know we’re supposed to dig the dirt and honor somebody’s memory who was forgotten. And we decided to circle up and pray and sing a little bit, and people were like, “What should we sing?” And the song “Were You There?” came to me.
I don’t know, truly, where it came from, but ever since that, I’ve associated that hymn with lynching and the murder of black people in our country. And sometimes I see these internet debates about the murder of black people by police, and a lot of white people often say, “Well, you weren’t there! There must be more to this. Maybe they did deserve this.” And I ask, “Is that what you need to do to justify these things in your head?” Because the same things could be said about Jesus and his crucifixion. Do you need to be there to know this is an unjust thing? So when I sing this song, I always think about the people who doubt that these murders were unjust.
These are the songs I go to for comfort, the songs I mourn to, the songs we should be singing in our churches. But the same reasons that drove me out of church are the same reasons we don’t sing these songs.
I remember, when I was going to church, really struggling with a lot of the song choices because a lot of songs would talk about how God was mighty and “up there.” I didn’t feel like God was with me or present and that was part of the reason why I left, because I didn’t find God relatable. What were your reasons for leaving your church community?
The songs are kind of never the issue for me as much as the people singing them. That’s one part about this project that’s been interesting. I know that some of these songs are really triggering for a lot of people; some people have baggage with a lot of stuff, but I think a lot about how the messenger matters. The same Bible passage that has been used as a weapon has been the same thing that has liberated people when they embrace it for themselves.
So I’ve called this a Reclaimed Hymns Project, in the same way that I feel these songs are for me. Maybe the person who wrote it had in mind something different or the people who taught me the song had a different intention, but at the end of the day, the song means something different to me and has been empowering and healing for me when I’ve been the one who sets the tone with the song. I think there’s something in the way that we reclaim scripture or music that speaks to how my faith is greater than the people who taught it to me or who I can’t look at anymore. They don’t get to own it anymore, they don’t get to limit its interpretation to their objective.
A lot of progressive communities will throw babies out with the bathwater. What I mean is, instead of trying to reclaim Scriptures, they just don’t read Scripture anymore. Instead of trying to sing hymns, they just don’t sing hymns anymore. So I think that’s powerful that you want to own these hymns.
There’s something really powerful in queer people reclaiming these songs and the power we have when we say these words. I think that the process of reclamation is really interesting. We had a discussion in my LGBT group at my college about reclaiming words. We have “queer" and a lot of terms that have been reclaimed, and there’s a discussion about who gets to reclaim and about the power of intention, because it’s difficult to know people’s intentions when using a word. It’s hard because intention is sometimes tied to embodiment.
I’ve been thinking about that with worship music. [With] a straight white man who embodies everything oppressive within a church, there’s the baggage of oppression that comes with that. But I can sing that same song and people can see that it’s not oppressive and ask what it means that God is on the side of the queer and the woman and the oppressed. All those songs that say “God is on my side, He is mighty,” are another way of supporting cis, hetero, white supremacists. But when we sing it, it means something totally different that God is on our side and that God is mighty and going to see us through this difficult time.
I wanted my queer family to have recordings of music where the singer is on their side and God is on their side, too. We don’t have a lot of queer music right now. We have had to rely on the bastions of power to give us anything to engage with.
I noticed that when I was listening to your music, including those songs that I would have normally had trouble connecting with, I was actually able to connect with them.
I'm glad. That was my goal.