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Studying at sunrise

Freshman Josh Harris leads the morning seminary students in a hymn to start off their lesson before school last Wednesday. Shown in the front row (left to right) are freshman Ethan Hallstrom and senior Mitch Coutu. In the middle row are sophomore Merlin Erickson, junior Maddy Harris and sophomore Evan Coutu. In the back row is sophomore Sarah Amezcua. In the foreground is teacher Jody Bullough. All the students pictured attend East Ridge High School. (Bulletin photo by Patricia Drey Busse)

A group of 17 Mormon students attending District 833's high schools set their alarm clocks an hour early each school day, and they say they wouldn't have it any other way.

Sure, waking up early is tough, but some of the students who gathered at a home in Cottage Grove's Timber Ridge Estates neighborhood last Wednesday morning said they wouldn't trade seeing their friends or starting their day in a spiritual way.

"It's kind of an uplifting way to start the day," said Sarah Amezcua, Woodbury High School student.

At 7 a.m. the students started filling seats at a ping-pong table, and three more tables lined up in the Coutu family's basement.

The program -- called seminary -- isn't a church requirement, but most active Mormon high school students opt to participate either in the before-school classes, or a home-based study that covers the same material and meets once per week, said Nicole Garside, a public affairs specialist for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cottage Grove.

This year's focus is church history, and seminary classes all over the world follow the same curriculum, Garside said.

One of the students started off Wednesday's class by leading the group in singing a hymn, another student said a prayer aloud and then the group buckled down for a lesson given by teacher Jody Bullough on Martin Harris, the man who paid for the first printing of The Book of Mormon.

Bullough said some days, that morning hymn sticks with her throughout the day -- and she suspects students experience the same thing.

Bullough, of Cottage Grove, volunteers her time -- about four hours per day -- teaching and preparing for the next day's lesson.

"I'm here to help the students learn, and I can't imagine that I'm not going to glean something from it, too," Bullough said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in the midst of an advertising campaign to dispel common misconceptions about the religion, Garside said.

Garside remembers that in middle school a classmate found out she was Mormon and asked how many moms she had, she said.

The church hasn't allowed or practiced polygamy since 1890, she said. The HBO drama "Big Love" depicting a Mormon polygamist family contributed to the confusion, she said.

"I know people who have been told by people, you know you're going to hell," because many don't consider Mormons Christians, although the church does consider itself a Christian religion, she said.

"Little by little, the church is trying to help people understand us," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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