Going from a place where cows are sacred to a place where they're roped, hog-tied and devoured would be a major leap for most, but not for Lillian Mayer.
The 80-year-old Mayer, who retired to Payson in 1992 after serving as a Lutheran missionary in India for 46 years, truly believes that "home is where the heart is."
"It wasn't an adjustment," Mayer said. "Wherever I am, I seem to feel at home. When I'm there, I'm Indian; when I'm here, I'm American."
Mayer says she was called by God to be a missionary when she was a 16-year-old high school student.
"I went to India right after World War II -- in October, 1945 -- when I was 23," she said. "I was a trained Bible woman, That means a village worker with the women. You go into homes for women to tell them about the Lord."
Mayer met her American husband, Joel, in India, believe it or not. They have been married for 47 years.
"I thought, well, maybe some day the Lord will get somebody for me, but it never really was a big problem for me," she said. There were several single women missionaries there.
"I had met (Joel) before, because his parents were missionaries and he was born in India," Mayer said. "After spending some time in college and in the army, he decided he wanted to be a pastor in India.
"We met in 1954 and were married in 1955. We have five children and 12 grandchildren."
While they came back to the U.S. on a regular basis for furloughs, India served as home for the better part of five decades.
"I just stayed there, "Mayer said. "The lord never released me from my calling."
The Mayers spent much of their time in India working in leprosy colonies.
"Leprosy has been eradicated in most parts of the world," she said, "but Africa and India still have quite a number. In fact, there are thousands in India.
"It's a virus that goes into the blood and then infects the nervous system, and then you can't feel anything in your digits or toes. They live with it their whole lives.
"If they touch something real hot, it burns their fingers and they don't know it. Then it abscesses.
"What they used to do is cut off that digit so the whole finger won't go. But that didn't solve the problem, because the next time they'd get burned again. There are some people who have no digits left."
Fortunately about 20 years ago a treatment was found for leprosy.
"It's a three-pronged medicine that also includes the virus for tuberculosis," Mayer said. "They give it for six months as soon as the symptoms develop."
Leprosy colonies exist because many people are afraid of contracting the disease. Mayer was not one of them.
"We never shunned them," she said. "If they wanted to be prayed for, we put our hands on them and prayed for them. We would give them whatever help they wanted. We bandaged their fingers."
Because the incidence of leprosy is decreasing, the Indian government has discontinued its leprosy program.
"They're saying, ‘As long as everybody is negative there's no use having a program for them,'" she said. "But what about the people who have lost their feet? They can't help themselves, so some of them still go begging."
During their last 10 years in India, the Mayers helped the Jyothi Colony develop its farm land and become self-sufficient.
"In the 1980s, we planted mango trees and raised peanuts," Mayer said. "It was quite an operation and much of it was hand work."
Thanks to the new medicines available, the children of lepers have not developed the disease, and the Lutheran church has developed a foster-ship program that allows people in the U.S. to "adopt" an individual child and help him or her get an education. The cost is just $15 a month for children in grades one through 10, $20 a month for junior college students, and $30 a month for degree college students.
"We started out with 24 kids 10 years ago," Mayer said. "Now we have 173.
"But we need people to help out because most of the people are very poor. Some of the kids have lost one or both parents, and now there's a drought."
For more information on the program, or to "adopt" a child, call the Mayers at 474-8008.
Although Mayer is originally from Ohio, she and her husband retired to Payson on the advice of a friend.
"We had a friend who lived in Tonto Village, and she had been writing to us and she said Payson is a nice place," Mayer said. "My husband said, ‘After living in India, which is a very humid country, I'd like to live in a dry place.' So we moved here."
But they still visit India every year.
"We've met so many people who are wonderful friends, both here in Payson and in India," Mayer said.
And she still fixes her favorite food, rice and curry, three or four times a week.
"The rest of the time we eat soup," she said with a laugh.
Name: Lillian Mayer
Occupation: Retired missionary
Employer: Evangelica Lutheran Church of America
Birthplace: Napoleon, Ohio
Family: Husband Joel, five children, 12 grandchildren.
Personal motto: I feel the Lord is with me all the time, that he's guiding me, and I want to do whatever he wants me to do.
Inspiration: My husband.
Greatest feat: I don't know that I accomplished all that much, but I felt it was good that I could help the leprosy colony develop into a little village, and most of them are now able to take care of their own needs.
Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Reading, mostly religious books.
Three words that describe me best: Happy, content, thankful.
I don't want to brag, but ... I have a great family.
Person in history I'd most like to meet: Abraham, because we live by the faith of Abraham.
Luxury defined: Cooking rice and curry.
Dream vacation spot: Anywhere with the kids.
Why Payson? It really appealed to us -- the trees and the small town effect. It just hit us right.