The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration's call to address the political and humanitarian crisis in Cameroon drew about 100 people to a town hall meeting and more than 1,000 viewers online.
The April 25 event in La Crosse, Wisconsin, specifically addressed the crisis in Kumbo*, a sister city to La Crosse, but all of Cameroon is suffering, officials said.
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration formed a relationship with the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis of Cameroon in the 1990s. The relationship grew into the Franciscan Common Venture, a formal partnership with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi of Milwaukee and the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist of Meriden, Connecticut, that has lasted two decades.
"When you've walked together for 20 years and you hear someone you love cry in pain, you can't help but respond," Sr. Eileen McKenzie, president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, told the crowd.
La Crosse Friends of Cameroon is the civic group that maintains the sister-city relationship with Kumbo. Its chairman, Lee Rasch, told the town hall the sisters' and sister-city relationship with Kumbo has grown to include projects with other civic groups such as the Rotary Club and led to efforts to improve access to dentistry and education and to create mobile libraries.
"Friends don't walk away from friends in a time of need," Rasch said.
And the need is great: Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in Cameroon since 2016, when tensions rose between the French-speaking majority and the English-speaking minority.
Homes and businesses have been burned, Rasch said, and food projection is 20 percent of what it was before the crisis, leading to fears of famine.
Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin said the conditions in Cameroon are dire. Kind co-sponsored a resolution condemning the violence, but the legislative term ended before it could be heard. He said it will be reintroduced this session.
"What you heard today are classic gradations of genocide," Kind said. "It's a call to action for all humanity."
Kind said while Cameroon "may seem like a million miles away" from Wisconsin, what happens there affects everyone.
"When there's human rights abuses, when there's suffering and oppression, there's death and mass rape, there's ethnic cleansing, when there's cultural and heritage attacks, it diminishes our entire humanity," Kind said. "As long as I have a voice in the United States Congress, I'm going to use it."
The United States has been slow to condemn the violence, Kind said, because Cameroon is an ally against the terror group Boko Haram, but sanctions have been announced in the form of a $17 million reduction in military aid to Cameroonian security forces.
"We will not ignore the situation," Kind said.
Officials urged town hall participants and viewers to contact their representatives to urge action to end the violence. The gathering ended with traditional Cameroonian music and dance.
* An earlier version of the story misidentified the city as Kumba.