Grayson Pratt recently found out he will be traveling to the West Indies, but the Caribbean region is not a vacation destination for the Edmond teen.
Pratt, 19, will soon become a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary, joining a missionary force of more than 55,000 young Mormon men and women worldwide.
He and another Edmond resident, Lexi Goff, 19, are among the Oklahoma Mormons who are excited about the Mormon church's recent changes to its missionary program guidelines.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided at its 182nd semiannual General Conference in October to lower its minimum age requirements for missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women.
Leaders with the Mormon church said the historic change is expected to significantly increase the missionary force of the church around the globe. Thomas S. Monson, the church's president, said the new age requirements take effect immediately and replace limits that were in effect for decades.
Mormon men serve full-time, two-year missions, while women serve 18-month missions. Missionaries must be graduates of high school or its equivalent.
Pratt, a 2012 Edmond Santa Fe High School graduate, said he is set to report to the church's missionary training center in mid-December, and he expects to travel to the West Indies sometime in February.
He said he plans to attend college after serving in the missionary program. The chance to focus on his faith and share it with others is an opportunity he had been looking forward to. He said he applied in June and has been working to make money to pay for his time in the program ever since.
Pratt said the missionary guidelines changes don't affect him since he is 19, but he expects more young Mormon women such as Goff will be excited about the altered program.
Goff, a 2011 graduate of Bishop McGuinness High School, said she thinks the new guidelines will allow more young women to go straight from high school to the missionary program instead of having to wait a year or two before joining the faith program. Now a college sophomore, Goff said she is in the application process for the missionary program and hopes to complete it soon.
“I had planned to serve when I turned 21. Now I can go,” she said.
“I think this will make a big difference for a lot of people. So many youth in our church have a desire to serve in missions, and having the opportunity to serve right away is beneficial.”
Goff said she looks forward to the opportunity to serve others as a missionary. She said both her parents served in the missionary program, which is voluntary, so she grew up hearing about its many benefits and challenges.
Over the years, thousands of Mormons have become missionaries for their faith. These include pop culture celebrities, athletes and political leaders. Examples are Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, and “American Idol” alum David Archuleta.
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