Growing up as a minority in a largely Caucasian community is hard enough for many people. But being the minority of a minority can be very challenging. Shawnterra Mills, 23, of Wentzville, understands just what that is like. She is an African American and a Mormon.
Raised in Mississippi and Missouri as a former Baptist, Mills has carved a path for herself that relatively few have undertaken. As a Mormon convert, or member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mills has stepped away from traditional stereotypes often perceived about her faith, and has had to walk into seldom traveled territory.
“We were the only African American Latter-day Saint family at church on Sundays, and it was awkward at times,” Mills said. “Coming from a Baptist background in Mississippi, this was a big change.”
According to a study done by Pew Research Center in 2009, only about 3 percent of Mormons in the United States are African American. And while the diversity within the church has grown significantly over the recent years, much of that diversity is found in congregations outside the United States.
But Mills is a minority for yet another reason. She recently served a full-time mission for her church, something few Latter-day Saint women choose to do. Mills served in the Ft. Worth, Texas area, working with other missionaries to share the message of the LDS faith. According to the church statistics, of the 58,000 missionaries currently serving around the world only about 14 percent are women. And very few of those are African American women.
“I didn’t know African Americans could go on missions because I had never seen one before,” said Mills. Although she wanted to be a missionary, she struggled with her decision and wondered if it was right for her. “But everyone was real supportive and encouraging, and for me it was a leap of faith. I’m glad I decided to go.”
Serving a mission is considered a duty for Latter-day Saint young men in the church, but women are invited to serve if they so choose. Typically young men have been called to serve at the age of 19 for a period of two years, and women were able to serve at the age of 21 for 18 months. Because it has always been emphasized as a duty for the men and not the women, and because of the older age requirements for women, relatively few women chose to serve.
But all that is changing now. On Oct. 7 an announcement was made by LDS Church president Thomas S. Monson lowering the age requirements of missionaries. Men may now serve at the age of 18. It was also announced that women would be allowed to begin their optional missionary service a full two years earlier, beginning at age 19. This announcement sent ripples of enthusiasm throughout the church.
Madeline Martin, 18, a senior at St. Charles West High School, is one whose life has been changed by the new announcement. “When I first heard about the lowered age, I was so excited my mouth just dropped open. I was so surprised and happy,” Martin said. While a mission was something she had entertained as a distant possibility, with the new announcement she is already making firm plans to serve next year after graduation from high school. “It’s better timing for me,” said Martin. “This is something I really want to do. This has been a turning point in my life.”
The age change, particularly for the young women, will have an effect on missionary work throughout the world. Thousands of young people, most of them women, have already submitted their applications for missionary service in just the few weeks since the announcement. In the greater St. Louis area alone, it is estimated that more than 60-70 new missionaries, nearly all of them young women, will be showing up for service in the next few months. Currently there are 16 women missionaries serving in the area, compared with 190 who are young men.
Although young men may still continue to outnumber the young women as missionaries, one thing is certain. The portrait of a typical Mormon missionary is changing. A younger, more diverse company of LDS missionaries will be seen not only in the St. Louis region, but also throughout the world.
More information about the lowered age requirements for Latter-day Saint missionaries can be found at: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-lowers-age-requirement-for-missionary-service