KC Christian school lost donations after supporting LGBTQ rights. Now it’s closing

Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com

In its nine years of existence, Urban Christian Academy steadily grew, adding a new grade each year in a neglected southeast Kansas City neighborhood.

The school has provided its students, kindergarten through eighth grade, with a tuition-free private education.

And with its “inclusive theology,” it always supported LGBTQ students and staff. But it did so quietly, as issues like same-sex marriage and gay clergy divided Protestant denominations while hate crimes and violence against the LGBTQ community rose.

But last winter, executive director and co-founder Kalie Callaway-George felt the school could no longer keep its LGBTQ support in the shadows.

“I think our community members felt safe within our walls, but we wanted them to feel publicly protected as well. Eventually, it felt like our silence was contributing to the hurt and pain our queer community members were experiencing,” she said in an email to The Star. “We deeply longed for all people to feel welcomed, loved and celebrated not just secretly within our walls but very explicitly to the public as well.”

The school updated its mission statement and website, stating that it affirms LGBTQ rights, and informed the school community of the change in a newsletter. In the following six months, Callaway-George said, the school lost 42% of its funding — donations from churches and congregation members that keep the school running and pay for students’ tuition.

By the end of 2022, the school lost 80% of its funding. And now, officials say the school is forced to close this spring.

“We find ourselves in a season where we are running on very few resources and each time attention is brought to the issue we are bombarded by hate which further distracts from our ability to care for the scholars we have in our care,” Callaway-George said.

The controversy goes to the heart of how Christians define Christianity.

One angry patron wrote the school: “Although we love and admire you in many ways, for your hard work, compassion, commitment, strength, we draw the line at this issue. Christian compassion doesn’t mean universalism. Jesus loved all, but told them, ‘go and sin no more.’ He died so we could be saved, healed, delivered, and set free.”

Callaway-George takes a different view of Jesus’ teachings: “As a Christian school, we believe that each of these beloved humans was made in the image of God.”

Donations disappear

Before publicly supporting the LGBTQ community, Urban Christian Academy raised nearly $334,000 in December 2021. This past December, donations dropped to $14,800.

All eight churches that helped fund the school withdrew their support, “citing a disagreement of values based on the inclusion of the LGBTQ community,” Callaway-George said.

“We have zero regrets in putting that stake in the ground. However, we are heartbroken and devastated that so many donors choose to withdraw their funding from the UCA scholars in response to this message,” officials said in a recent newsletter.

Some families pulled their children out of the school of 100 students. And after two teachers resigned at Christmas break this school year, Urban Christian Academy closed its first, second and third grade classrooms.

As a result, mother-of-five Darnisha Harris said she had to take her children out of the school, except for her youngest in kindergarten. They’re now enrolled in the Independence district, she said.

When she told her children the school was closing down, she said, “They cried. They told me, ‘Mama, we don’t want any Christmas gifts. Can we just give the money to the school?’”

“It really hurt my heart. It really, really crushed me,” Harris said. “Love is love. And they don’t teach our kids anything about sexuality. The only thing I’ve heard my kids talk about is being kind and treating others with respect and taking accountability. It really, really hurt my feelings that people would be ignorant like that.”

The school, she said, has always offered a “helping hand. From giving us a coat to a gas card to a grocery gift card, just helping me out with my children. They were just wonderful.”

Callaway-George said the school has reached out to churches that openly support the LGBTQ community in Kansas City, but none offered financial help.

The school has relied on Kansas City area churches since its start. Donations from churches made up only 2% of the school’s funding, though, with more coming from individuals. Callaway-George claimed that no other issues have led to the school’s situation.

In 2014, for example, Wornall Road Baptist Church offered up space to house the school until it could secure its own building, at 4328 Jackson Ave., starting with only a kindergarten class, according to a blog post from the school. After outgrowing the space in 2020, leaders purchased and rehabilitated an old school at 2810 E. 80th St., with the help of a $160,000 pledge from Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, a post says.

Merle Mees, Pleasant Valley’s lead pastor, said in an email to The Star, that the donation was a gift raised by its congregation.

“We steward the gifts of our congregation through partnerships with a number of both local and international organizations with the understanding that each partnership is for a season, so we are able to serve with a variety of organizations that help fulfill community needs.”

“I was unaware and saddened to learn that UCA will be closing at the end of this semester,” the pastor said.

Preparing to close

The school has prioritized enrolling children within the 64130 ZIP code, most of them low-income students of color.

“We believe that lack of financial resources should not inhibit scholars from the opportunity to receive a high-quality, holistic education,” Callaway-George said. “We also wanted to partner with parents and caregivers in the neighborhood in delivering that education. We hosted Family Nights once a month to foster community. Over the past nine years, our attendance rate at parent-teacher nights is 98%.”

But school leaders supporting the LGBTQ community quickly fractured the tight-knit community.

Callaway-George said she began receiving hateful messages and requests to refund donations immediately after putting the support in writing.

She shared examples of the responses donors and parents sent the school:

“As Christian ladies, you cannot have an inner peace in your heart about this. May God burden and chasten you with his mighty hand,” one message read.

“It makes me very sad to see that you have taken this path. My prayer is that God will protect these young lives from the false Gospel you are embracing, presenting and promoting to them. I believe this is a very sad day for the school, its students, teachers, parents and benefactors,” another said.

Callaway-George said she believes “affirming our LGBTQ students and staff in their identities is life-saving work.” In the past year, 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide, according to a 2022 survey from the Trevor Project. Nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide.

Da’Lesa Goodspeed, whose fourth grade son has attended the school since kindergarten, said she wasn’t surprised that officials supported the LGBTQ community.

“They were so welcoming and loving and wanted to show love through the Christian way, that I knew they were accepting of it,” she said. “It wasn’t a shocker for me. But I know for a lot of families, it was a shocker.

“I think some of the parents were concerned it was a Christian-based school. And some parents feel or believe because it’s Christian-based it should not be accepting of LGBTQ communities. That it’s against God,” she said. “And it spiraled down from there. Parents started talking about how they disagreed with it.”

While Goodspeed would stay at Urban Christian Academy if she could, she’s been applying to charter schools for her son to enroll in next fall. She says her fourth-grader reads at about a seventh-grade level, and “I’m just trying to find a school that can meet his academic needs. That’s going to prepare him for college.”

“I don’t think he’ll be in an environment as loving, as caring, where they provide that Christian structure and biblical teachings. I’d have to pay for him to go to a private school, which I can’t do. So I’m going to have to continue that at home.”

Urban Christian Academy made a final fundraising push in December, but raising only 4% of the previous December’s total, she said, “was a signal that continuing on in our current format is unsustainable.”

That month, officials told parents the school would close. They’ve been helping families find alternative schools for next year.

We are meeting with each family individually and have received an enormous amount of tenderness and support. UCA is a really sacred place and there is so much grief around losing the community that has made it so, so special,” Callaway-George said.

The school will close after the last day of the year, May 24.