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And I'm Audie Cornish. This time last year, the Mormon Church made a big change. It lowered the minimum age for its female missionaries from 21 to 19. Not long ago, men dominated the ranks wearing the familiar white shirt and black tie, but today, thanks, in part, to the rule change, a quarter of all missionaries are women. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Stina Seig reports.
STINA SEIG, BYLINE: Tara Carpenter is pointing to a wall map to show where she'll soon spend 18 months proselytizing.
TARA CARPENTER: The left side of Kentucky, just a teeny, tiny bit of Illinois, and I think I'm a little bit in Missouri, but...
SEIG: Carpenter is smiley and outgoing and young, just 19. A year ago, she was thinking about going on a mission, but only thinking about it. Then, Carpenter heard about the age change.
CARPENTER: You know, I called my mom up and was like, hey, I'm going on a mission. She's like, okay.
SEIG: So Carpenter's been working at her family's machine shop near Phoenix to save up money. She says waiting an extra two years wouldn't have worked out this well. She would've been out of college for more than a year and perhaps, like many young Mormon women in their 20s, in the cusp of getting married.
CARPENTER: But now, it's like I've got my associate's and I can go. Everything's cleared up. Everything's perfect. All the pieces fell into place.
SEIG: There are 11,000 more female missionaries around the world now than a year ago. Like their male counterparts, they're disconnecting from worldly things and focusing solely on their faith. No hobbies, no school, no social media, unless it relates to their mission. And they're not all teenagers.
AMELIA BELCHIOR: This suitcase actually comes into three pieces.
SEIG: 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. She admits, at times, college life seemed more exciting than the gospel. Then she heard about the age change and felt inspired.
BELCHIOR: It was just like an answer to my prayer. Amelia, wake up. Like what are you doing? Wake up and come. And I was, like, yeah, I think you are right. I need to go.
Belchior was born in Mozambique. Her parents and her older brother died of AIDS. She was adopted five years ago by a Mormon family here. Here faith means a lot to her.
He helped me come to terms with my parents passing and my siblings passing and actually being happy and knowing that I have a purpose and I can do this. I wouldn't be here if God didn't have a plan for me.
CINDY PACKARD: 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.
SEIG: Cindy Packard is a spokeswoman for the Mormon Church.
PACKARD: I think that the world will only be so much better because these young women are now able to serve at a younger age and so many more of them are able to go have that experience.
SEIG: But Packard says a long line of Mormon sisters probably won't come knocking on your door, unless you want them to. Cold calling isn't frequently used in the U.S. these days. Missionaries of both genders focus more on reconnecting with people who've already expressed an interest in the faith. As is tradition, they still live and work in pairs.
ANDREA JACKSON: And this is our bedroom. We are supposed to both stay in the same room.
SEIG: Andrea Jackson is giving a tour of the small Phoenix area apartment she shares with another female missionary. They're both 19. 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.
JACKSON: Some people are like, oh, only 19? Like, you're a young'un. Others are just - they respect that we're out here so young.
SEIG: 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. For NPR News, I'm Stina Seig in Phoenix.
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