A conflict over what it means to be a Christian forces 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 emphasized inclusiveness across the board, noting that following Jesus “opens doors and makes room at the table.” But last year it added a paragraph to its website that read in part: “We are an affirming school. We stand with the LGBTQIA+ community and believe in its sanctity. We celebrate the diversity of God’s creation in all its varied and beautiful forms.”
According to the school, this update prompted donors to stop contributing, many of them citing their interpretation of Christianity as the reason. Now, UCA has announced that 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 something that started the backlash from our donor base, which we expected. We just expected a 50 percent loss in funding and we made adjustments for We had a loss 80% in funding and that was too much to overcome.”
The dramatic drop in donations came quickly. Shortly after the new language appeared on the school’s website, eight churches withdrew their support. Although these foundations were responsible for only 2% of the school’s funding, church members were a donor base that gave far more.
“We lost our network” of donors, Callaway-George told ABC News. “In December 2021, right before we publicly supported the LGBTQ community, we raised $333,985. A year later, after we posted on our website and took a stand, (in) December 2022 we raised $14,809.”
While the school did not reveal the names of the churches or individuals that terminated their financial aid, it shared several of their letters with ABC News.
A lengthy letter from one church, which characterized the LGBQIA+ community as a “disparate collection of behaviours”, explained: “Our biggest concern with the Acceptance and Affirmation stance is that it denies biblical definitions of sin and identity and therefore renders the grace of God without meaning.”
Messages from individuals were much more blunt. One wrote, “Don’t call yourself a Christian school if you affirm sin. Jesus died to free us from sin, not so that we could die in it. You are abusing children by telling them that sin is good. You are wicked .”
Another stated: “By teaching them tolerance And to accept and even to celebrate the homosexual lifestyle, you set them on a course to embrace the world and anti-God philosophy.”
The controversy surrounding UCA’s impending closure has brought new attention to the school’s history. A recent article in the Kansas City Star cited former employees who criticized his leadership.
Although administrators anticipated backlash and some loss of resources, they believed that an explicit show of support for this community was necessary due to the influx of teenage students and changes in society.
UCA started as a kindergarten in 2014 and has added a grade each year. With seventh- and eighth-graders only enrolling in recent years, Callaway-George said “we’ve had more conversations about growth and development.”
Referring to events that rocked the nation at the same time, she added: “Our society has given us a lot of fodder for conversations around injustice and looking at marginalized communities. As our children have grown up, they’ve had access to phones (and) just interacting more with the people”.
With that commitment came questions about sexuality and inclusion as well as awareness among school administrators of the high suicide rates among teenagers struggling with these very questions. Thus, UCA concluded that publicizing its supportive stance was necessary for students dealing with these issues to feel welcome and safe.
Callaway-George called it “a life-saving effort,” adding, “We wanted our families and our children 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 children were “so sad,” she told ABC News. “They wanted to have no Christmas and give up their Christmas presents to pay for school funding.”
Jamie Visser’s five children are all enrolled at UCA. Although he has supported alternatives for them, he said the end of the UCA “seems like an injustice to me”.
“I’m LGBTQ affirming and I identify as a Christian,” she told ABC News. While he likes what he calls a “discrepancy in biblical interpretation,” he said “it’s unfortunate that children who have nothing to do with the argument are the ones who will suffer because of it.”
Although the explicit embrace of the LGBTQ community now resulted in the school having to close in May, Callaway-George still maintains it was the right thing to do and has no regrets.
“The essence of the Christian faith is to promote and give love,” he said. But he understands that even this benign view of the faith is viewed differently by believers who have withdrawn support for the UCA.
As Rob Philips of the Missouri Baptist Convention, a network of 1,800 churches in the state, explained to ABC News, “embracing desires and behaviors that are outside of scripture is not ultimately loving and caring.” Philips said it was unlikely that any of the congregation’s member churches would have supported the school.
Callaway-George hoped that “there will be conversations in churches and around dinner tables where people ask critical questions about what they believe and how their beliefs affect other people.”