It's an unusually cold January evening for middle Tennessee, but the mood is warm and inviting inside the Holy Family Catholic Church as the ladies of the congregation gather to hear a special speaker.
Once Brigitte Kitenge begins her story, however, the carefree mood quickly evaporates. Her audience sits in rapt silence and more than a few are wiping at tear-stained eyes.
In the spring of 1994, Kitenge tells them, she was 23 years old, living in Kigale, Rwanda's capital, working toward a law degree, and nursing her newborn second child.
Then the killing began.
After years of simmering ethnic tension and growing militancy, Hutu extremists massacred an estimated 800 thousand Tutsis and Hutu moderates over the course of just three months. Kitenge's five sisters and a brother were among the first to die.
"I lost all my siblings, aunties, cousins, numbers of nephews and nieces, friends, coworkers, neighbors," she says, her voice breaking with the memory. "I mean, I lost everybody."
Struggle for survival
A member of the Tutsi ethnic group, Kitenge survived the initial slaughter with the help of a Hutu friend. She hid under the man's garbage pile for 10 days. Her Congolese husband was beaten repeatedly by the Hutu militias for not revealing his wife's location. Finally, they decided the family's only hope was to make a run for the Congo border.
"So we had to make our way through road blocks and barriers, dead bodies to reach Congo," Kitenge says.
A trip that usually took five hours stretched to two months. "It took us two months because we walked at night and we were hiding in the daytime," Kitenge explains.
On two occasions, the family was captured and Kitenge was placed in a lineup to be shot. Both times, her life was spared at the last moment. Once safely across the border, the Kitenges and their two daughters spent six years in refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 2000.
Learning to let go of hatred
But even though her circumstances were greatly improved, Kitenge says she continued to suffer from panic attacks, depression and sleepless nights.
"There was nothing that could really, really bring a smile in my face. I was a prisoner of hatred and anger for many years. So I sat down in my darkness," she says.
The darkness began to recede when Kitenge read the life story of a survivor of an earlier genocide, the Nazi Holocaust. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jew, worked to help his fellow prisoners in the concentration camps, and it was a quote from his book about that experience which finally put Kitenge on the road to recovery: When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
"So I told myself that there will be no way to change everything that I went through. There will not be a way to become the happy woman I used to be - ambitious, with dreams - unless I change the way I have seen my past and everything that happened to me."
As she re-examined her terrible ordeal, Kitenge began to believe she could see God's hand behind her survival - that she'd been spared for a purpose.
Teaching others to forgive
Today, Kitenge shares her experience with groups like the women of Holy Family Church nearly every week.
"When I began talking to people about the love of God, about forgiveness, I feel like it's my calling," she says. "Now, instead of being a prisoner of hatred and anger, I am a prisoner of love. I am a prisoner of forgiveness. I learned that you are the loser if you can't forgive."
She tells audiences all across America, the journey to forgiveness is long and difficult, but worth every painful mile.
It's a message well received by those who come to hear her, and this night she gets a standing ovation. But Kitenge has learned that behind the applause and happy smiles hide broken hearts. Experience suggests one or two of these women will seek her out later to ask for help getting past their own personal tragedies.
After attaining U.S. citizenship this past year, Kitenge returned to her native Africa, opening counseling and job training centers for women in both Rwanda and Congo. The centers serve both Hutu and Tutsi.