Sister Tara Reese, 20, and her companion, Sister Britteny Breinholt, 19, ride their bicycles six miles each day around the neighborhoods in the Oakwood area attempting to share the gospel with people they meet.
The sister missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are new to the area. Reese, a trainer, recently opened the Oakwood area up for other incoming sister missionaries. She will be training Breinholt for the next three months before they are relocated to other communities in the Georgia Atlanta North Mission and another pair of sisters take their place.
Since October, the church has experienced a surge of new missionaries allowing it to branch out to more areas with more missionaries, like the sisters in Oakwood.
Church President Thomas S. Monson, who is revered in the church as a prophet, announced that young male missionaries, given the title of elder, are eligible to join the mission field at the age of 18 instead of 19. Young women, titled sisters, are eligible to join the mission at age 19 instead of 21.
The change in age requirement has resulted in more young women becoming missionaries.
According to the church’s website, mormon.org, only 15 percent of missionaries were women prior to the age change. Now women make up more than half of all new missionary applicants.
Ward Missionary and Gainesville Mayor Pro-tem George Wangemann said he hasn’t heard a single negative reaction to the age change. The reduced age requirement allows young people the option to become missionaries immediately after high school if they desire.
But Wangemann said the most obvious benefit has been an increased number of missionaries serving in the area.
Traditionally the ward has only had two elders at a time. Now the ward has two elders and two sisters.
"We’re all hoping this is not just a flash in the pan where the numbers jump way up and somehow level off at some future time," Wangemann said. "But I can see that this is going to keep the numbers up. That’s the way I feel about it."
Both Breinholt and Reese said they’ve always wanted to be missionaries and were pleased by the opportunity to begin earlier.
Reese was able to begin her 18 months of service six months early.
"I was definitely ready," Reese said. "The summer before I turned 20 I decided I was going to go on a mission when I turned 21. But it worked out really well with the position I was in — in life and in school — to come when I did."
Reese was in her junior year of college studying nutrition. She said she’ll pick up where she left off in school when she returns home to Mount Carmel, Utah.
Though the missionaries aren’t enrolled in school while they serve, it doesn’t mean they’re not learning.
Reese said she’s learned a lot since she became a missionary four months ago. She said she’s mostly learned to be obedient to God and the importance of hard work.
"Something we like to do the most is give service," Reese said smiling. "Recently, a few weeks ago, I learned how to lay tile. It was a lot of fun. It was really messy but we enjoyed it."
Breinholt, of Gilbert, Ariz., said her first five weeks as a missionary have taught her to rely more on her heavenly father and to have faith that things will work as they should, even when it’s not what she would have wanted.
Before finding out what area of the world she would be called to work in, she wanted to go to Africa.
"I wanted a complete culture shock," Breinholt said. "Just to try and get to know different cultures. But when I opened my call, I felt very excited and happy. I’m a country kind of person so I knew it was our heavenly father leading me here. I can use my abilities and talents to help the people here. I think he’s prepared people for what I have to share and what we have to share with them."
While some young missionaries are sent to exotic locations and others to more domestic destinations, being a missionary is hard work no matter where they’re called to serve.
The missions are funded 100 percent by the missionaries. They’re encouraged by the church to begin saving for their mission at the age of 8.
Elder Logan Schmidt, 19, of Cedar City, Utah, worked for a year and a half to save up for his mission.
"I was one of those that waited for little bit to save up," Schmidt said. "It was definitely good to save up that money because its just like they say — people in college that pay for their college take it more seriously. When we pay for our missions, we take it more serious because we actually work to get out here so we’ll put more effort into it."
According to the church website, an average mission costs around $10,000 for two years.
Should the missionaries need a little financial help along the way, their families or home wards might send some money.
The young people "work 24/7" ministering and doing service projects for the people they meet. Only on Mondays are the missionaries allowed to run errands, do their laundry and write letters home.
The missionaries write letters or emails home to keep in touch with their families. They’re only allowed two phone calls a year, on Mother’s Day and Christmas.
Elder Caleb Johnson, 20, of Gunnison, Utah, said he’s never been so excited to see a mail man in his life since becoming a missionary 20 months ago.
"Missions are hard ultimately," Johnson said. "There have been times in my mission where I’ve really struggled. And I’m just like, you know what, I wish I could call my mom or dad or talk to my older sister but ... the mission really helps us rely on our heavenly father even more."
The missionaries also rely heavily on their companions who are reassigned and relocated within their mission district every six weeks.
The missionaries are perhaps best known for walking door-to-door to share the gospel.
Wangemann, who went on a mission to Brazil 40 years ago, said the idea behind the lessons the missionaries share is to benefit the lives of people.
"The purpose of the gospel and what they’re trying to accomplish is to make bad men good, good men better and all men happier," Wangemann said. "That’s the purpose of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ."
Johnson said sometimes people don’t open their doors at all; other times, they’re met with harsh rejections that can be hurtful.
He said he thinks people might think they’re intimidating "but we’re just 20-year-old kids."
"A lot of people think we’re here to force and to make them feel like fools," Johnson said. "But we’re here to raise them up and give them more doctrine and to ultimately invite them to know the gift the heavenly father has given us of agency, to choose of our own will. We’re not going to interfere with that."