Bridget Huisman was an inmate. Sarah Monson was starting a new ministry at the jail. Their meeting would change the lives of both women.
By Stan Friedman | Photos by Jessica Schmitt | August 8, 2017
In a moment of anger he said I was an apple tree
Stuck in the ground going nowhere he’d had enough of me
I will reclaim what was said to hurt
It only gives me strength cause there’s pow’r in the dirt.
—“Apple Tree,” Sarah Monson
Sarah Monson’s new song “Apple Tree” is the fruit of a seed sown in bitterness and redeemed in jail.
Monson, who serves as the worship arts minister at NewDay Church in Rochester, Minnesota, was starting a new ministry to women jailed at the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center. At the same time, Bridget Huisman was looking to escape her boredom. Neither knew their lives were about to become intertwined.
Monson started the My Story, My Song project in December 2013. Since then, she has met with two inmates a week for six- to eight-week periods, helping them put feelings to paper and turn those expressions into song lyrics.
“I signed up for the program to get out of the unit,” says Bridget. “I had zero interest in participating long-term in this. I’m not creative, and I wasn’t interested in working with someone who hadn’t been in my shoes. Frankly, I was in survival mode. I wasn’t ready to trust anybody. My first thought was, does this woman have any idea what she’s getting herself into?”
But when Bridget met Sarah, she was impressed. “There was something approachable about her. So I decided to sign up. I figured I had nothing to lose.”
It was the best decision she’d made in years.
When Bridget was 16 she got pregnant and dropped out of high school. The child’s father disappeared from her life. Six years later she married a man who seemed to offer stability, and they had two children.
“I was a foster parent. I had an immaculate home 24/7,” she says. “He had a business.”
But all of that disintegrated. Bridget’s husband was verbally and emotionally abusive. She got hooked on alcohol and crack. The couple separated. She was living with her children, but her home had become a haven for drug addicts. She was arrested and convicted on drug and child endangerment charges. She lost custody of her children.
In the span of six months, she went from living in a house with a picket fence to jail and separation from her children.
When she was released on probation, she got cleaned up and enjoyed a period of extended sobriety. Then it was back to abusive boyfriends and drug addiction. One boyfriend, a homeless meth addict, was staying with a friend. She suggested he needed a dresser at the home where he was staying. For her it meant stability. For him it meant being tied down.
In response, he sneered, “You’re a [expletive] apple tree. Why the [expletive] do you want to be stuck in the ground, going nowhere?”
He came into my life like a tumbleweed
I was breaking bad and running from the past
catching up to me
Just like a drug we used each other
Lost to myself, he tore me apart
Bridget did go somewhere—back to jail. Trying to shoplift from Wal-Mart, she was caught by police, who found her hiding behind some bushes after a brief chase. A loss prevention employee said Bridget had flashed a knife and tried to stab him.
That led to her incarceration at the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center. At the time, Sarah was starting her ministry at the jail. The married mother of two had just completed her first album and was looking for a way to use her talents when she decided she would do concerts at the jail.
But county officials suggested that she do something that could have a more long-lasting, transformative impact. That led to My Story, My Song.
“The foundation of the whole thing is journaling,” Monson says. “I make it very clear to the detainees that the weight of this program is on them. I talk to them about different types of journaling. You wake up and write down the first thing that comes to your mind.”
During each of the six to eight weeks that the women meet in the jail library, Sarah reads the journals and asks questions to help them delve more deeply into their story. She then tries to write a song based upon their conversations and journal entries.
“I was so glad she was the first person I worked with. They certainly weren’t all that easy,” says Sarah. She laughs, noting, “Bridget is never at a loss for words.”
“It was good for her to ask questions, because I didn’t want to open those doors or look at those things,” Bridget says. “You don’t want to be vulnerable in jail.”
Sarah helped Bridget become vulnerable. “I had no clue about what was going to happen,” says Bridget. She turns to Sarah, and reminds her, “I was there because I signed up and I liked talking with you. You asked me questions. You made me cry. You made me cry all the time.”
Bridget’s journal was filled with feelings of shame. She could take anything good about herself and turn it into a negative.
It was around the third week when Bridget wrote about the apple tree insult. The verbal assault had confirmed for her that she was worthless. Tears rolled down Bridget’s face as she told Sarah the story.
“It was the most bizarre insult I’d ever heard,” Sarah recalls. She asked Bridget, “Have you seen an apple tree in spring? They are stunningly beautiful and fragrant. And, by the fall, its blossoms have become delicious fruit. It is asinine that someone would call you an apple tree and mean it for harm.”
Sarah encouraged Bridget to spend the next week describing the bark, leaves, and roots and what they might mean to her. It was an exercise to help her see the good in herself and to stop listening to the voices that told her otherwise.
But Sarah admits she also had deeper questions. As she walked out of the jail, she wondered, “What was Bridget’s truth? Who was she? How could a loving, caring mother allow the sort of person who uses meth into her life? Was she a petty thief? If so, she wasn’t a very good one. Was she just another drug addict wasting taxpayers’ money?”
She also knew Bridget had to find those answers out for herself. As the two women met over the next several weeks, they both began to discover the truth.
Sarah took Bridget’s words and crafted them into a song that was finished it by their final week together.
I am the apple tree
I am the leaves
I am the blossom and
I am the breeze
I am the branches and
I am the fruit
I am the ground
I am the root
Beautiful, sacred and strong
I am the apple tree.
“Every time I hear it, I cry,” says Bridget. “I thought it was crazy how she had taken something I had written and turned it into something beautiful.”
“The first time Bridget heard the chorus, which was one of the first things I wrote, she was in tears and then I was in tears watching her in tears,” Sarah says. “That connection we had in that moment was just profound.”
“I’ve learned that this process of having someone trust you with their story is absolutely overwhelming,” Sarah says. “It is some of the most difficult writing that I’ve ever done. The pressure for me is so intense. It’s a pressure I don’t enjoy but then the end is almost always worth it.”
Bridget was released in October 2014. She had spent 13 months in jail on charges in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She was convicted of aggravated robbery in the Wal-Mart case and sentenced to 20 years’ probation. If she violates the probation, she will serve seven years in prison.
Her conviction plus her lack of job skills stood in the way of getting anything beyond menial work. “It was disheartening not to be able to get a job,” Bridget says. “Society as a whole really doesn’t accept you if you’ve been incarcerated.”
Once she got her foot in the door as a receptionist at a hair salon, her life changed again. Her employers saw that she was bright and determined and soon promoted her to manager. She took night courses and also learned the accounting program Quickbooks. One of the employees said her husband operated a business that needed someone like Bridget and encouraged her to apply as an administrative assistant. She was hired and has worked her way up to become general manager the company, which sells programmable lighting to restaurants across the country.
Bridget says she was blessed with a strong will. “When you are an alcoholic and doing drugs, you wind up using your blessings in a bad way, but then when you are in recovery you find a way to put them to good use.”
Last year she participated in a panel discussion on various issues related to incarceration and women. She shared the stage with the head of operations for the jail and an Olmsted County District Court judge, all of whom spoke on the need for reform.
She loves telling people her story. “I’m very open with that,” she says. “It’s very empowering to talk about the stigma and where I’ve been and to own it because for a long time, shame destroyed me. It doesn’t have power over me anymore. I like to tell my and Sarah’s story and how you really can transform somebody’s life.” She adds, laughing, “I really like telling people I met her in jail.”
“Apple Tree” is the title track for Sarah’s new four-song EP, which was released online in June and can be downloaded on iTunes. It includes three other songs based on the lives of people she met through another of her initiatives, The Worthy People Project.
It is a multimedia endeavor in which she talks with and tells the stories of people she has met. “Each song is the story of people who find themselves in the muck, mire, and margins of life,” she says. “They are everyday people who feel their stories don’t matter, but when told through a melody, those stories take on an unexpected significance.”
Bridget still has a video on her phone of the first time she heard Sarah sing the song. “It still has the same impact today it had on me when I first heard the chorus. It astounded me that someone would look at me like that. It uplifts me and it reiterates the value that I have.”
In addition to finding a job and remaining sober, Bridget has been transformed in other ways. She has reconnected with her oldest daughter, Brittany. Bridget lived with Brittany and her two sons for several months until Bridget was able to get an apartment.
“My relationship with her is fantastic,” Bridget says. “I want to break the cycle that I had with my mom. I can be her biggest cheerleader today in a good way.”