By Srianthi Perera

John and LaCinda Lewis knew since November that they were probably going on a three-year mission to serve the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a mission president and companion. They alluded to it in their Christmas card to friends and family.

The question was, where were they going?

In November, they had already faced an exploratory interview with a member of the Quorum of the 12 (one of the 12 Apostles of the LDS church), who had told them he feels “very good about the two of you serving.”

A mission president is a priesthood leadership position, where the appointee oversees a mission and its missionaries, consisting mostly of 18-25-year-olds and some senior-age couples. The appointee and his spouse leave their loved ones behind for three years to spread their faith to communities in America or abroad.

The former Mayor of Gilbert and the executive director of the East Valley Partnership and his wife were deemed by the church to be free of challenging family matters that would make it hard for them to be away from home. Six of their children – three daughters and five sons – are married, and they have 16 grandchildren with two more on the way. John’s parents are deceased and so is LaCinda’s mom. Her father lives in Utah.

So during a second phone call in early December, the mission opportunity was extended to them. But they still didn’t know where it would be.

“125 places around the world were available,” LaCinda said.

“The children started guessing,” John added.

The couple was visiting their daughter in Texas when the package arrived at their Gilbert home and a neighbor called.

“We were expecting the call to come and arranged the whole family to be on a Google chat,” John said.

The neighbor opened the package and put it up against the computer screen so everyone could see.

“You will be serving a Cambodia, Phnom Penh mission,” it stated. “And you will be learning a Cambodian language.”

Their daughter knew a woman who lived nearby who had spent a mission there. They quickly summoned her.

“I was very surprised,” John said. “I hadn’t expected Cambodia, and then, as they talked to us that afternoon, it started to sound like a wonderful place.”

The Southeast Asian country was war-ravaged in the 1970s when the radical communist party, Khmer Rouge, was in power. About 2 million died during the ensuing chaos, and the country became known for its burial sites called the Killing Fields.

Nowadays, there’s stability in the predominantly Buddhist country with burgeoning tourism and a thriving textile industry. Tourists come to the Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia built in the 12th century. It is a world recognized heritage site and the largest religious monument in the world.

For the Lewises, who will exchange the Valley of the Sun’s searing summer heat for incessant tropical rains coupled with humidity and the desert scenery with fertile rice paddies, it will be a world removed.

“It does seem like it would be an adventure and a chance to go to a place that we probably would never get a chance to go, and meet some wonderful people,” John said.

LaCinda, who teaches fashion design and merchandizing at Mesa Community College, said she was interested to know about the textile industry there.

“Not that I’ll be necessarily part of that, but I’ll like to visit, and I’ll like to get to know some of the textile workers,” she said.

This is not John’s first foray into mission work in Asia. When he was 19, he served the church for two years in Japan. LaCinda hasn’t done one, but she has traveled widely, engaged in nonprofit work in Mozambique and is “familiar and comfortable with Third World country situations,” in her words. She also speaks French, which is spoken in Cambodia, which was a French colony in the 19th century.

Their family has also served in missions extensively: Their twin sons Ben and Doug have served in Londrina and Fortaleza, Brazil from 2002-2004; son CJ served in Cape Coast, Ghana from 2008-2010; daughter Jennie served in Birmingham, Alabama from 2012-2014; son Ed served in Novosibirsk, Russia from 2015-2017; and son Kelvin is serving in Lisbon, Portugal from 2017-2019.

Some of the time, they had to learn new languages. Ed learned Russian. John learned Japanese (it took him eight months).

According to John, about half of the 70,000 missionaries serving around the world learn a language to perform their work. Some of them are immersed with native speakers to hasten the learning.

That’s not true for a mission president and companion, who have to labor on their own.

John and LaCinda have six months to learn Khmer, or Kamai, which is rooted in ancient Asian languages Sanskrit and Pali, and have 80 characters.

“Each has two different sounds depending on its position in the word. I took a look at the Book of Mormon in Kamai and, of course, it’s foreign and a teeny bit frightening,” LaCinda said. “But I think with some faith and some hard work and I think actually hitting the ground and mixing…”

Each night and during the weekend, the couple spends time with the manuals sent by the church and connecting via Skype with a trainer.

“They are giving us six months to figure this out and just have a teeny bit of a foundation before so that you understand the characters and the letters and the script and the sounds that they make,” LaCinda said.

How has it been so far?

The characters are a challenge. “It will not be a race; it will be very methodical,” LaCinda said.

The couple is also learning the cultural nuances of the land. When meeting a person, hugging should be replaced by a handshake or a traditional palm-on-palm greeting; a man putting a foot on the knee is taboo, and pointing is rude.

In Cambodia, John will oversee 20 of its 30 congregations, which have a total membership approaching 14,000. There are 95 missionaries between the ages of 18-25, and six senior missionary couples.

Every six weeks, 10 missionaries are transferred and 10 others will take their place. John will assign them their new positions, train and guide them.

The couple will travel to meet the congregations around the country and offer assistance where necessary. They will also assist in humanitarian projects, and not be above donning a pair of denims and a t-shirt to extend a helping hand.

LaCinda, the mission companion or “mission mom,” has a special role in its medical program – if someone’s sick, she’ll be the first to learn of it and ensure adequate medical help is provided.

The Lewises have heard from the current mission president in Cambodia. “They’re very busy, every day. They’re going at a very fast pace,” John noted.

This does not mean the couple won’t have time for each other. Weekly preparation days allot time to prepare for events and also to perhaps catch up on reading or meet someone.

As a former mayor, John is also interested in meeting the mayors in Cambodian cities.

“It’s a very dedicated service opportunity, but in the same time, in life, to continue on the marathon, you need to have breaks,” John said. “So I’m sure that’ll happen. And sometimes the break will be as simple as reading something that lifts you up.”

Unlike young missionaries, who leave their families for two years and are only allowed to write weekly emails and call home on Christmas and Mother’s Day, the Lewises will have more communication with their extended family in the United States. Family members can visit, too.

“We’ll be rolling out the red carpet for grands and guests,” LaCinda said. “And we’ll be recruiting volunteers. We can request senior couples to come and serve with you. We hope that some will be willing to do that. It is a sacrifice.”

As for her, LaCinda may be able to return to Arizona for something special, such as a wedding, but John has to stay put.

“Mission president and companion are the top leaders and therefore, there’s a lot of flexibility. If there’s a child in need, I would address whatever concern they have,” she added.

The Lewises have to assume their new role by July 1; this is also the day that their son, Doug, will assume a new job in the East Valley. He and his family plans to occupy the Lewis home for the three years.

“I’m trying to balance learning a new language with packing up a home and studying as well,” LaCinda said. She’s enrolled in Northern Arizona University’s doctoral program in educational leadership for higher education and may have to postpone her last three classes, which are due this summer.

When they return, the Lewises may receive other leadership positions within the church. They may just as well be assigned to a nursery to work with babies.

“In this church we belong to, you grow up in a culture where you love to serve and there are all sorts of assignments,” John said.

“There should be no expectation that something special is going to happen,” LaCinda added.

As time goes on, their thoughts may wander to the East Valley and the lives they left behind.

“We also realize that, at the end of three years, we’ll be having these emotions of ‘we don’t want to leave this beautiful country, we don’t want to leave the people,’” John said. “That’s part of life. We understand that, and we look forward to contributing best we can and then coming back and contributing here again.”