Nashville, Tennessee - Kathleen McCleavy has lost count of how many doors she has knocked on as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nashville for the past 18 months.
But she still remembers the first.
McCleavy, 23, was newly arrived in the Bible Belt from her hometown of Cordoba, Alaska, a small town where she rarely encountered strangers. Her goal for the day — reach people who speak Spanish, a language she'd only begun learning.
Back then, communication trouble started right after Hola and Como estas?
"Before my mission, I was kind of shy," she said. "Now I love talking to everyone."
McCleavy is a leader among the approximately 220 Mormon missionaries in the Tennessee Nashville Mission. She also is one of a growing number of "sister missionaries," who are changing the public face of their church.
When she arrived in 2011, there were about two dozen sister missionaries in Nashville. Now there are 60, with 40 more on the way.
In the past, young women such as McCleavy had to wait until they were 21 to go on a mission. Young men, on the other hand, could serve at 19. Now women can serve at 19 and men at 18, after a rule change in October.
The total number of Latter-day Saint missionaries has jumped from 58,513 to 66,731 over the past six months. The boom in missionaries led church officials to plan 58 new mission sites worldwide. In the U.S., those include Cincinnati; Wichita, Kan.; Macon, Ga.; and Salem, Ore. Places such as Nashville are getting more because the church saw room for expansion.
More than a third of the new missionaries are women. Joanna Brooks, Mormon blogger and author of "The Book of Mormon Girl," said that will change the brand of their church.
"For more than 50 years, the dominant public image of Mormons has been young men in white shirts and black suits," said Brooks, an English professor at the University of San Diego. "The image now will be equally well-scrubbed, well-dressed, young Mormon women."
Brooks, a Brigham Young University graduate, said the old rules made it harder for women to be missionaries. At 21, most were finishing college, getting married and starting careers. It's why Brooks didn't go on a mission herself, she said, but she would like her daughter to go.
Now they can do a mission first, she said. That puts them on equal footing with young men in the church.
"This sends a powerful message that men and women can serve shoulder to shoulder as leaders," she said.
On a recent Tuesday after, a group of 28 local missionaries gathered for leadership training in Brentwood. Among them was 20-year-old Janeen Johnson, a native of Malta, Idaho.
She'd been a student at Brigham Young's Idaho campus when the rules were changed. She applied to be a missionary soon after she heard the news.
"I thought, 'This could happen now,'" she said. "It had always seemed so far in the future."
As least for now, the missionaries said, women get a warmer reception when they knock on doors. That's in part because people are surprised that women can be Mormon missionaries.
Hollie Vandenberg, originally from Roy, Utah, said she is glad for new missionaries, both men and women. There's more than enough work to do for all of them.
"We are both needed out here," she said. Local church officials adjusted to their program to accommodate the influx of sister missionaries. William McKee, president of the Tennessee Nashville Mission, said that he tries to give the sister missionaries cars rather than bicycles to help them get around. Some of the sisters prefer the bikes, he said.
They've also taken a safety precaution for women and men, telling them to bring local volunteers along when they are out at night.
"We encourage all of our missionaries to go out with a local member anytime after 5 in the evening," he said.
Bound for Brazil
The rule change also means that Nashville will be sending out more missionaries as well.
Olivia Troseth, 19, of Franklin left in mid-April for Salt Lake City for training before heading to Brazil.
Troseth said the rule change came at a good time for her. She'd finished her general education classes at school but wasn't ready to commit to a major.
Along with buying a new wardrobe — including skirts that fall below her knees and loose-fitting blouses to keep cool in Brazilian heat — Troseth started a fitness routine to prepare for walking 10 miles a day as a missionary. She also listened to the Mormon Scriptures in Portuguese, a language she'll study in training.
Troseth said she hopes that more young Latter-day Saints, both men and women, will go out on missions in the future. "Holy Father has given us this wonderful gospel." she said. "And some of us just sit around and do nothing about it.
"We just need to get up and go and tell people."