Christian school that embraced the LGBTQ community is forced to close its doors
The school's mission statement has always stressed inclusivity.
A conflict over what it means to be Christian is forcing a school in Kansas City, Missouri, to close.
Urban Christian Academy is a private, K-8 school with an enrollment of 100 that describes itself as providing "a tuition-free, high-quality, Christ-centered education for low-income students."
The school’s mission statement has always stressed inclusivity in general terms, noting that following Jesus "opens up doors and makes room at the table." But last year it added a paragraph to its website, which read in part, "We are an affirming school. We stand with the LGBTQIA+ community and believe in their holiness. We celebrate the diversity of God's creation in all its varied and beautiful forms."
According to the school, that update prompted donors to stop contributing, many of them citing their interpretation of Christianity as the reason. Now, UCA has announced it will close at the end of the school year due to the loss of financial support.
Kalie Callaway-George, UCA’s executive director and co-founder, said this new language "is kind of what started the backlash from our donor base, which we anticipated. It was just that we anticipated a 50% loss in funding and made adjustments for that. We had an 80% loss in funding and that was too much to overcome."
The dramatic drop-off in donations came quickly. Soon after the new language appeared on the school’s website, eight churches withdrew their support. Although those institutions were responsible for just 2% of the school’s funding, church members were a donor base that gave much more.
"We lost our network" of donors, Callaway-George told ABC News. "In December of 2021, right before we publicly supported the LGBTQ community, we raised $333,985. One year later, after we had posted on our website and made a stance, [in] December of 2022 we raised $14,809."
Although the school would not disclose the names of churches or individuals who ended their financial assistance, it shared several of their missives with ABC News.
A lengthy letter from one church, which characterized the LGBQIA+ community as a "diverse collection of behaviors," explained: "Our greatest concern about the Accepting and Affirming stance is that it denies the Biblical definitions of sin and identity and thereby renders the grace of God meaningless."
Messages from individuals were far more blunt. One read, "Do not call yourself a Christian school if you are affirming sin. Jesus died to set us free from sin, not so we can die in it. You abuse kids by telling them sin is good. You are wicked."
Another declared, "By teaching them tolerance & acceptance and even to celebrate the gay lifestyle, you are setting them on a course to embrace the world and anti-God philosophy."
The controversy surrounding UCA's coming closure has brought new attention to the school's history. A recent article in the Kansas City Star quotes former employees who criticized its leadership.
Even though administrators expected negative reaction and some loss of resources, they believed an explicit show of support for this community was necessary because of an influx of teenage students and changes in society.
UCA began as a kindergarten in 2014 and added a grade each year. With seventh and eight graders enrolling in just the past few years, Callaway-George said "we were having more conversations about growth and development."
Referring to events that roiled the nation at the same time, she added, "Society gave us lots of fodder for conversations around injustice and looking at marginalized communities. As our kids got older, they had access to phones [and] they’re just engaging with the world more."
With that engagement came questions about sexuality and inclusion plus an awareness among school administrators of high suicide rates among adolescents struggling with those very questions. So UCA concluded that publicizing its supportive stance was necessary for students dealing with those issues to feel welcome and safe.
Callaway-George called it "a life-saving endeavor," adding, "We wanted our families and our kids to know where we stood and to be really clear about that."
Darnisha Harris has four children who attended UCA. Her youngest is still there but she transferred the others to area public schools when she learned in December that UCA would be closing. Her kids were "so sad," she told ABC News. "They wanted to not have Christmas and give up their Christmas gifts to pay for the funding of the school."
Jamie Visser's five children are all enrolled at UCA. While she has alternatives lined up for them, she said the end of UCA "feels like an injustice to me."
"I am LGBTQ-affirming and I identify as Christian," she told ABC News. While sympathetic to what she calls "a discrepancy in biblical interpretation," she said "it's unfortunate that children who have nothing to do with the argument are the ones that are going to suffer because of it."
Although the explicit embrace of the LGBTQ community has now resulted in the school having to close in May, Callaway-George still argues it was the right thing to do and has no regrets.
"The essence of the Christian faith is promoting and offering love," she said. But she understands that even this benign view of the faith is seen differently by believers who withdrew support for UCA.
As Rob Philips of the Missouri Baptist Convention, a network of 1,800 churches in the state, explained to ABC News, "to embrace desires and behaviors that are outside of scripture is not ultimately loving and caring." Philips said it is unlikely that any of the convention’s member churches would have supported the school.
Callaway-George expressed hope that "there will be conversations in churches and around dinner tables where people ask critical questions about what they believe and how their beliefs are affecting other people."