Former Gilbert Mayor John Lewis

Thanksgiving was no small affair for the Lewises, who hosted 95 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries.

About six months have passed since former Gilbert Mayor John Lewis and his wife, LaCinda, moved to Cambodia to serve a three-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The tropical Southeast Asian country was unfamiliar to them, and they had a few months to learn the rudiments of the Cambodian language, Khmer.

Now, the couple refers to their host country as “paradise.”

“We are wonderfully happy and engaged,” LaCinda said.

As mission president and companion, their lives revolve around church members; missionaries, including elders and sisters from several countries; and sightseeing trips.

“Time passes very quickly, and we are not really homesick,” she added. ‘We do miss family and friends, but our work is purposeful.” 

But their thoughts do stray toward the home and happy life they left behind, albeit temporarily.

John misses mowing the yard, playing basketball twice-weekly with friends, and interacting with businesses and individuals in Gilbert and the East Valley, where he had been president/CEO of the East Valley Partnership until he received the call from his church. 

LaCinda misses visiting the Gilbert Mormon Temple, craves her backyard fruit trees and readily available favorite food items, such as Ghirardelli chocolate chips and maple syrup. 

It didn’t matter that Thanksgiving was without turkey or that the coming Christmas will be sans a decorated pine tree. There’s plenty to be thankful about in their new roles, they say. And there are substitutes they can work with.

During Thanksgiving week, they participated in three separate chicken feasts: one in Kampong Cham/Kampong Thom to the east of Phnom Penh where they oversee 10 missionaries; another in Battambang/Siem Reap to the northwest with 18 missionaries; and the third in Phnom Penh on Thanksgiving Day at one of their church buildings.   

The meals included potatoes and rice, stuffing and yams, fruit, rolls and a pumpkin dessert. 

“With the help of six senior couples – retired volunteers who leave their families to serve missions around the world – we successfully filled the stomachs of 95 missionaries,” LaCinda said.    

Now, they are preparing for their first Christmas in Cambodia.

In a word, it’s “basic.” The mission home has an artificial tree with a few decorations.

There are none of the extended trips to the mall with a long gift list, an equally lengthy itemization of grocery ingredients to be taken to a supermarket and the accompanying last-minute shopping anxieties.

Friends in Gilbert and some of the missionaries’ moms sent them some sweet treats and gifts.

The majority of the country’s citizens are Buddhist, so Christmas celebrations are a commercially imported idea except for those who identify as Christian, LaCinda said.

“Some of the larger stores are beginning to stock items for Christmas stockings,” she said. 

“Since the essence of Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ, it matters little where we are or what we have as long as our focus is on the Savior and Redeemer of the world,” she added.

Perhaps the biggest gift will be the visit of their son, Ed, who is working in Geneva, Switzerland, and will fly to Cambodia for Christmas. Ed will be joined by their son, CJ, and his wife, Taryn, for post-Christmas festivities.

This is the first time that family members are visiting, although the Lewises have already hosted friends and claim to have “rolled out the red carpet” for them.

“We are certain that all of our children and maybe some grands and hopefully our siblings, nieces and nephews, and LaCinda’s father will eventually make a trip to Cambodia in the next 2 1/2 years,” John said.    

Visitors aside, there’s much to be done.

They work with 98 missionaries and 28 church congregations with 15,000 members scattered throughout Cambodia, who are based in 15 church buildings.

A Mormon temple for Phnom Penh, Cambodia was announced recently. The Lewises will have returned to Gilbert by the time it’s constructed, but they can help with the foundation, they said.

“Our world in this Cambodia adventure seems to be perfectly balanced between running the marathon at the speed of a 50-yard dash,” LaCinda said. “We spend a great deal of time working with the missionaries and the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We also spend an equal amount of time waiting; waiting at stop lights; waiting for a Khmer word to come to our elderly brains; and waiting for the internet to resurrect.”

The language, rooted in ancient Asian languages Sanskrit and Pali, and with 80 characters, has been one of the challenges, despite the 40 hours of study with a returned missionary via Skype before leaving home. The missionaries are given nine weeks of intense language study before arriving, and usually master the language in about nine months.

“Not that they come to know every word, but it is remarkable that they communicate so well and understand most of what is said in less than a year,” LaCinda said, adding “the local residents are very impressed.”

When John and LaCinda try to speak in Khmer, it usually results in corrections with a smile.

“Every time we speak, we mix things up,” LaCinda said. “We were told by a Khmer member that they love it when we speak because they like our accents and our mistakes.” 

John wishes he was fluent so that he could better communicate with everybody. He continues to spend time working on the language, while LaCinda has less time for it, as she is working on her dissertation at Northern Arizona University’s doctoral program in educational leadership for higher education.

Besides the language mix-ups, cultural blunders occur. 

Recently, they attended a Khmer wedding celebration. 

“The Khmer are exceedingly proficient at gathering a host of people for weddings, funerals and parties,” LaCinda said. “This pop-up party tent, in the middle of a dirt road in the middle of farmland, featured a bride and groom who changed outfits thrice, tables and chairs and a plethora of Khmer edibles.”

The wedding party and the guests were bedecked and bejeweled in beads and bows, she said. In true Khmer tradition, the guests who are invited came with cash (the equivalent of $25 per guest) in a gold-embossed envelope to help pay for the edifice and the edibles. 

“I have made many errors on this mission and being under-dressed for an overdressed occasion is a faux pas with extraordinary consequences,” she said. “Next time, I will be appropriately adorned.” 

As for the Cambodians, the Lewises find them “happy, helpful, resilient and resourceful.”

“We are so impressed with their ingenuity and their hard work. The way they move people, produce and products around the country is amazing,” LaCinda said.  

They have done some sightseeing, which included visiting the burial sites known as the Killing Fields. About 2 million died during the 1970s when the radical community party, Khmer Rouge, was in power.

“It was April in 1975, I was preparing to go to the Jr. Prom with John Lewis, he was my first official date after I turned 16,” LaCinda recalled. “I was concerned about what to wear, while millions of Cambodians were concerned about where to flee.”

They also undertook a seven-hour tour of the Angkor Archaeological Park, the world’s largest religious monument, in the area where Cambodian kings ruled from the 9th through the 15th centuries. The most famous is the Angkor Wat, or temple, which is the main draw for 50 percent of the country’s tourists.

The Lewises are also struck by the torrential rain, which lasts from June to October, and changes the flow of the Tonle Sap River and fills the basin’s rice fields.

The monsoons are muggy: “sweet and sweaty is the work,” goes the saying in Phnom Penh.  

They are happy they came from Arizona’s climate, which seems to have prepared them well.

“I love the billowing clouds and the blue skies. Parts of every day, the sun shines through beautiful and picturesque clouds,” LaCinda said. “The hottest time of the year is still to come, so we may have a different opinion come March.”   

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