A May 2012 Sports Illustrated cover story featured Jabari Parker, a high school basketball star athlete and Mormon who told the magazine he was considering putting his basketball career on hold to join the church's missionary force.
Two Oklahoma Mormon leaders, Kent Bowman and Kevin Graves, said the missionary program's popularity is not surprising considering the many life lessons as well as spiritual training that young missionaries glean from the program.
Bowman said he predicted an increasing number of young Mormons will apply for the program under the new age guidelines.
“Immediately, the pool of potential missionaries just opened up, and my personal opinion is that we will see an increase in the young ladies serving,” he said.
Bowman said he served as a missionary in Argentina. Graves said he served in Peru.
Graves said he attended one year of college before joining the missionary program at age 19.
He said he was the oldest of nine children and had never been far from his home in Utah before going to stay in Peru for two years. As a missionary, Graves said he learned how to speak Spanish and became immersed in the Peruvian culture.
“The single biggest impact was that it focused me on others — it's all about the people,” he said.
Graves said the connections he made in Peru have been long-lasting. He said he recently received correspondence from a young woman who opened her bodega to him and other missionaries so they could show a film about their faith beliefs.
“We sat down and taught a whole family about Christ,” Graves said.
Nolan and Rhonda Taylor, of Norman, are leaders in charge of the Mormon missionaries in Oklahoma. They said there are 130 young missionaries serving in Oklahoma, and about 110 of them are male.
The couple, like Bowman, said they foresee more young women joining the program. They said under the previous guidelines, many young women may have opted against the missionary program because by age 21 they were already in the middle of advanced college classes or had married or made plans to marry.
“The fact that they can leave at 19 and then come back to finish out their last years of college, we'll see lots and lots and lots of young women who want to come,” she said.
Nolan Taylor said, nationally, about 50 percent of the online applicants for the missionary program are women.
“There's tremendous excitement among our young people,” he said. “Their commitment to Jesus Christ grows tremendously during their mission service. They do this because they choose to.”
CONTRIBUTING: The Associated Press