It was so early when the students arrived on a recent morning that you could see their faces clearly under a bright and full moon.
Five days a week, some students from Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, show up before 6 a.m. for seminary instruction.
For one hour, the 120 boys and girls, who also belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, study scripture and receive practical advice on how to navigate high school. How to stay good and pure, and "righteous." They do it every school day for four years. advertisement
For the church, it's one way to help its students better grasp their faith. And unlike other faiths that operate religious schools, the Latter-day Saints depends on classes like these, which are held across the Valley and, for that matter, across the globe.
For the students, it means being at school much earlier than the other kids, and as the Sunrise students settle into their seats, their hair is still wet from morning showers and their eyelids remain at half-mast.
A class of freshmen begins with an opening song: Come Unto Jesus. The instructor then asks one student for a prayer before turning to another for a thought of the day.
Eventually, the students begin to wake up and do things like scripture chase, in which they have to identify and find a verse from either the Book of Mormon, the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the book of Doctrine and Covenants.
The class ends with a closing prayer.
"I think starting the day with seminary, with morning prayer, is a little like putting on armor before you go out into the world," said Lori Wagner, supervisor of the seminary program for the Peoria Arizona North Stake.
Wherever there is a significant Mormon population at a high school, seminary classes are held. Statewide, about 6 percent of Arizonans are Mormon, while about 29 percent are Catholic, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey.
Don Evans, Maricopa County spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the classes are a "vital part" of the education of church youth.
"It reinforces the principles that are taught in the home and on Sunday at church," Evans said.
According to church records, there are now more than 360,000 high school kids in seminary classes across the globe. In Arizona, that number was 13,425 two years ago.
They are taught by volunteers who wake up early and receive no pay.
"These are good kids. Good kids," said Craig Olson, director of the Church Educational System. "I think that's why the church places such emphasis on seminary, to keep them good. It's a hard world out there."