Most folks growing up in northwest Missouri probably go to Sunday School during at least a portion of their childhood or teen years.
Indeed, in small towns like Maryville some form of religious education for young people is often as much a right of passage as learning to drive or getting your first part-time job.
That's only natural and probably as it should be in a culture where communities are still structured around deep ties to family and faith, and where going to church and expressing belief in God are simply part of the daily rhythm of life.
But in Maryville, one small group of young people is going well beyond simply following weekly forms and traditions that build a basic framework for what one believes and how one lives.
They've committed themselves to working toward a deeper understanding and taking a more committed and rigorous approach to building a foundation capable of supporting their faith.
Every weekday morning at 6:45 a.m., when many of their peers are still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and getting dressed for school, Hyrum Galbraith, Joseph Hutchins and Tessa Graves are already sitting around a long table stacked with King James Bibles and copies of the Book of Mormon.
Under the guidance of instructor Jenny Rytting, a professor who teaches Medieval literature at Northwest Missouri State University, they spend most of an hour searching the sacred texts for meaning and truth — looking for faith and finding themselves.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' teen seminary program is a four-year cycle of five-day-a-week courses that continues through the school year and covers four essential LDS texts: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, a part of the Mormon canon containing a number of revelations, including those dictated by the denomination's founder, Joseph Smith.
Forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, plus some home study, is a big commitment for most high school students, and Galbraith, Hutchins and Graves are the remaining half of this year's six-member class, three of whom declined to finish the program, which wraps up this spring.
"I enjoy being with these people," said Rytting. "They're great kids. And this is hard. People their age have a lot going on in their lives. This is probably the most intensive option for scripture study that we have."
For at least one of the young people completing this year's course, which focused on the New Testament, the seminary has served as a prelude to accepting an assignment as an LDS missionary. The denomination's mission program is noted for placing college-age people in the field — often overseas — for at least two years, where they are commissioned to spread the word about their faith.
Page 2 of 2 - Hutchins, who at 18 is the oldest of the three seminarians, is wrapping up his second year of study at Northwest Missouri State University's Missouri Academy of Science, Mathematics and Computing. After taking a few college classes this summer, the Joplin native plans to begin his term of missionary service in the fall.
He said the seminary has given him a chance to exercise his faith as he prepares to enter the adult world beyond the classroom.
"I just enjoy learning about the gospel of Christ. I like feeling the spirit, and I take comfort in the scripture," said Hutchins, who plans on returning to college at Brigham Young University in Utah after completing his mission assignment.
The other two members of the class say they have also found value in the study of scripture as it relates to their LDS beliefs. Galbraith, 15, described the course as "enjoyable," adding that it has opened up topics that "normally you don't get into on your own."
Graves, a junior at Maryville High School, said she, too, has enjoyed "learning about the gospel," but has also relished the opportunity to explore scripture with like-believing people her own age.
"There's not a lot of youth in this area who are Latter Day Saints," she said.