Alisa Baumgartner chats with fellow missionary Andrea Jackson. Jackson, 19, is taking 18 months off from college to do mission work.
Alisa Baumgartner chats with fellow missionary Andrea Jackson. Jackson, 19, is taking 18 months off from college to do mission work. Stina Sieg/KJZZ
Tara Carpenter points to a wall map to show where she'll soon spend 18 months proselytizing.
"The left side of Kentucky, just a teeny, tiny bit of Illinois, and I think I'm a little bit in Missouri," she says.
Carpenter, 19, is smiley and outgoing. About a year ago, she was thinking about going on a mission — but only thinking about it, because women in the Mormon Church couldn't be missionaries until 21.
Then, last October, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the minimum age from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men. When Carpenter heard about the change, she decided it was time.
Carpenter, who has been working at her family's machine shop near Phoenix to save up money, says waiting an extra two years wouldn't have worked out as well. "But now, it's like I've got my associate's and I can go," she says. "All the pieces fell into place."
There are 11,000 more female missionaries around the world now than there were a year ago. Women comprise 24 percent of all Mormon missionaries, up from 15 percent before the change.
Like their male counterparts, they're disconnecting from worldly belongings and focusing solely on their faith. No hobbies, no school, no social media — unless it relates to their mission.
Amelia Belchior is packing for her mission to Boston. She's 21, so she could have gone even without this change. But she wasn't sure she would. At times, she admits, college life seemed more exciting than the Gospel.
Belchior was born in Mozambique. Her parents and her older brother died of AIDS. She was adopted five years ago by a Mormon family, and the faith helped her come to terms with her family's passing — "actually being happy and knowing that I have a purpose and I can do this," she says. "I wouldn't be here if they, if God, didn't have a plan for me."
When she heard about the age change, she felt inspired.
"It was just like an answer to my prayer: 'Amelia, wake up, like what are you doing? Wake up. Come,' " she says. "And I was like, 'Yeah, I think you are right. I need to go.' "
According to the Mormon Church, the change was made to let young people begin missionary service earlier. And spokeswoman Cindy Packard says female missionaries, in particular, will help bring a more diverse group of people into the church.
"There's something about these young, vibrant, loving women that I think can touch hearts in a different way than sometimes the young men can do," Packard says.
"I think that the world will only be so much better because these young women are now able to serve at a younger age."
Reconnecting With The Faith
These days, missionary work in the United States doesn't involve much cold calling or knocking on doors, Packard says.
Both men and women focus more on reconnecting with people who've already expressed an interest in the faith. As is tradition, they live and work in pairs.
Nineteen-year-old Andrea Jackson, for example, shares a small apartment near Phoenix with another female missionary. Jackson says she always wanted to do this, so when the age was lowered, she jumped at the chance.
In her three months of mission work, she's received all kinds of responses from the public. Some people dismiss her as being too young; others respect her for serving the church at a young age.
Women are typically sent to safer parts of the world than men, and their missions are shorter. But all missionaries spend their days the same way: studying, volunteering and teaching from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night.