Former Gilbert Mayor John Lewis and his wife LaCinda are coming home.
As they wind up a missionary assignment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Lewises are planning to return to Gilbert in July.
As they characterized their three years in the Southeast Asian country, they reflect: “Thngai da aschar muoytiet now sthan suor” – the Romanized Cambodia Khmer words for “another great day in paradise.”
Their return may be anything but boring: John Lewis is planning to explore a run for Congress, which, if he enters the Republican primary, would put him head-to-head with U.S. Rep Andy Biggs.
“This current assignment is very intense and so I haven’t had a chance to expand and explore some of the future options,” John said.
“We have had a group that’s interested to see if I would be interested in running for Congress. I thought I was done with political life, and would just come back and be a grandpa and do some other fun things, but that is something we’ll take a look at when we get back.”
Lewis’ name may not mean much to the thousands of people who have moved to Gilbert since he resigned in 2016 after seven years as mayor to become president/CEO of the Phoenix East Valley Partnership – only to be asked by his church two years later to lead the LDS mission in Phnom Penh.
But to those who were there during his tenure, Lewis, now 64, helped lead the town through its emergence from being the Hay Capital of the World into a thriving community that still cherishes its small-town feel.
He entered the political world after 28 years in the private sector, going on to help plant some of the early seeds of the Heritage District, the $750-million Rivulon project and other commercial and industrial develpments.
He also helped to comfort the community as it reeled from the 2010 murder of Gilbert Police Lt. Eric Shuhandler and the 2012 slaughter of four residents, including an 18-month-old baby, by a prominent neo- Nazi who then took his own life.
Missionary work has kept the Lewises just as busy as the political arena – if not more so.
They worked 70-80 hours a week on the assignment, training missionaries and interacting with local church members and its leaders.
Their accomplishments are many.
At the beginning, the Cambodia mission’s 100 missionaries were mostly from abroad, with only 14 from the Southeast Asian country. The task was to increase the number to 100 locals, which they did.
“Of the 300 missionaries we’ve worked with over the three years, about a 100 are from Cambodia. And it’s been such a blessing for the country, because we feel we’re building leadership for the future,” John Lewis said.
“The reason why we are so excited about the great increase in local missionaries from Cambodia is because it gives the local missionaries a chance to share the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with their own people,” he added. “It is a Plan of Happiness that will bless their lives and the lives of those whom they teach.”
While the mission leader and his companion are stationed for three years, other missionaries are rotated every six weeks.
During that short time, they are trained in service, teaching, leadership, safety, time management, teamwork and other skills to enable them to spread the church’s word.
“Our non-Khmer missionaries learn how to teach,” LaCinda said. “Our Khmer missionaries are very good teachers. They understand their culture, and their language, they understand Buddhism and how to help bridge the gap to Christianity. Our non-Khmer missionaries learn from them as well. It’s a good, reciprocal relationship.”
For the first time in the mission’s history, the mission president and family replacing the Lewises is Khmer. This is noteworthy as well because all previous eight families hailed from North America.
The Lewises were also on hand when the church announced a temple to be built in Cambodia. A site was selected and a design created, but it will be many years before it comes to fruition.
“The announcement for a Temple in Cambodia was thrilling,” John Lewis said. “Members of the Church have yearned for the opportunity to visit a temple to participate in temple ordinances – the promised blessings of eternal families.”
Another highlight of their service was facilitating education, especially learning English.
With its emphasis on education, the church created a year-long college preparation course called the Pathway Program at Brigham Young University, Idaho.
The program was not available to Cambodians.
The Lewises, along with local leaders, were instrumental in establishing it there. Now, students follow college classes online or via local facilitators. Learning is in English, so it promotes language skills.
While Cambodians receive help with English, the Lewises made some headway with their Khmer, which is the language spoken by the populace.
But not much, they hastened to add.
“We understand more than we can speak,” LaCinda Lewis said.
“When someone asks me whether I can speak Cambodian Khmer, my answer is ‘tik-tik,’” John Lewis said. It means “just a little bit.”
It was different 40 years ago when Lewis served a mission in Japan: He was speaking in Japanese all day long and was teaching as well, so he became proficient by the end of the term.
“You would think after three years we would be proficient, but because our assignments are different and a lot of what we have been doing is interacting with the English speaking, it’s difficult,” he added.
Despite the difficulties in mastering the language, LaCinda has grown to love it.
“It’s a beautiful language. It’s a religious language, it’s descriptive and it has a lot of interesting characters,” she said.
How do they feel about nearing the end of their stay in Cambodia?
“I have very tender feelings and I get teary,” LaCinda said.
Added her husband: “We’ve had a great experience in Cambodia, I think my hair got a little bit greyer.”
The experience has been so positive that the couple is planning to return at a later date and serve a temporary mission there.
They found the Cambodians friendly, humble and positive, but the biggest thing that strikes them is their resourcefulness.
“It’s amazing to see what they can do with anything,” John Lewis said. “Often, we’d take pictures because we marvel at them; they might be driving in a vehicle that can only take one or two people and they will have six people on it.”
“I think they’re beautiful people,” LaCinda Lewis said. “They’re family-oriented. They have big families. They are peaceful people.”
“They’ve had a lot of trauma, recent trauma. It’s in their memory bank,” she added.
The country offered many sightseeing opportunities to the Americans and they donned a tourist hat whenever time afforded.
The 900-year-old Angkor Watt in northern Cambodia, the largest religious structure complex in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Center, is one such place.
They climbed up to the plateau of the 9th century Preah Vihear Temple near the northern Khmer/Thailand border, where the Buddhist temple’s ownership had been disputed over the centuries but a court returned it to Cambodia.
They planned trips around waterfalls, toured villages, made friends, shopped, observed cultural practices and dined at restaurants.
“Fruit falls from the trees here. We’ll be walking on a road right here and a mango might hit us in the head. Or a coconut. It’s God’s garden. The people, they will pick whatever they can find and sell it,” she said.
Most Saturdays, they got on their bikes and explored a place they had previously researched.
“We’ve enjoyed that. Just seeing the city from a bicycle is interesting,” LaCinda said. “I’ve been looking at architectural things, specially from the ’60s. The kingdom was at peace at that time and there were a lot of important architects and city planners working on Phnom Penn.”
They documented their stay by taking thousands of pictures. LaCinda included dozens of them in the weekly newsletters sent to family and friends around the world.
They took the tropical weather in their stride.
“We were washed in the humidity of Houston, dried in the oven of Arizona, so it’s perfect because half the year it’s rainy and sweaty, the other half of the year it’s hot and dry,” LaCinda said.
COVID-19 impacted the mission also, bringing with it the ups and downs felt worldwide. The number of missionaries dropped to 30 locals and LaCinda was sent back to the U.S. for a few months.
John organized meetings via Zoom and kept a closer tab on the missionaries, especially on their health. They learned to reach people with cell phones rather than bicycling to their homes.
The intense work brought them together. “It’s like one big family,” John said.
So, when missionaries left in six weeks when their terms ended, they felt a wrench.
“The missionaries become family, as if they were sons and daughters,” he said. “And the first time we went to the airport to say goodbye to a group of missionaries that we’ve been with, that’s when the emotions hit our heart – how hard it was to say goodbye to them.”
LaCinda said: “We didn’t even know them that well and I was so emotional.”
With communication methods as advanced as they are, they know their friendships will endure.
Meanwhile, once back in the U.S., the Lewises are looking forward to visiting their extended family. They have new grandchildren to meet and nurture.
“I think I’m ready for a good game of basketball,” John said.
They also want to look up the Khmer people in the area. Perhaps they will tell them of the Cambodian mission’s slogan. When the missionaries woke up in the morning, they were encouraged to jump out of bed, put their arms in the air and say “another great day in paradise” in Khmer.
“We had fun with that,” John said.
“John is always happy, even through challenging times,” LaCinda noted. “This particular slogan is a reflection of really who he is. When we’re in Gilbert, it will be another great day in paradise there, too.”