KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- 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 nondenominational school, started by two white women with evangelical backgrounds, aims to provide its predominantly Black students, in kindergarten through eighth grade, with a "free, high quality, Christ-centered education" plus a good breakfast and lunch each school day.
Only 2% of the school's funding came from churches, the school's leader said. One Southern Baptist congregations had provided enormous help, early on, offering up meeting space in 2014. Another had made a one-time $160,000 pledge to help the school buy and rehabilitate a new building in 2020.
Fellow evangelicals donated generously and the school thrived for years.
Things changed, however, after leaders announced that the school would embrace the LGBTQ community. In addition, co-founder Kalie George revealed that she would be marrying another woman and that they would be having a baby together.
She took Callaway-George as her surname.
The couple has raised $2,315 for their "baby fund" over the last five months with help from the giftofparenthood.org website, it notes.
"We dream of a family where all humans are invited to be loved and celebrated exactly as they are," the couple wrote in the "campaign story" posted online.
Kalie Callaway-George told the Star the school's leadership had always been supportive of LGBTQ students and staff. But it did so quietly, as issues like same-sex marriage and gay clergy divided Protestant denominations.
Opposition to gay marriage is higher among evangelicals than mainline Protestants, polling has consistently shown.
"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. "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 also updated its mission statement and website. It now states: "We are an affirming school. We stand with the LGBTQIA+ community and believe in their holiness ... We want all people who are part of the UCA family to feel free to explore and express who they are. We don't put people in boxes. We don't believe in being spiritual gatekeepers who say who's in and who's out."
In the months that followed, donations plummeted, teachers resigned and students withdrew.
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 embrace of the LGBT community is theologically sound, she believes.
"As a Christian school, we believe that each of these beloved humans was made in the image of God," she said.
Critics say it is wrong to affirm conduct that Christian churches historically rejected.
One 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."
Before the controversy, 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, 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 public schools, 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.
Callaway-George said the school has reached out to churches that openly support the LGBTQ community in Kansas City, but none has offered financial help.
Asked by email how recent events had affected her own religious views, Callaway-George told the Democrat-Gazette: "I believe that an authentic faith is one that is evolving. This experience, like many experiences in my life, is inviting me into a more expansive and nuanced understanding of myself and the world around me. "
PREPARING TO CLOSE
The school has prioritized enrolling children who live in a high-poverty area of the city, most of them students of color from low-income families.
But school leaders' affirmation of the LGBTQ community quickly fractured the tight-knit community.
Callaway-George said she began receiving 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 nonprofit Trevor Project, focusing on suicide prevention within this community. Nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide.
Urban Christian Academy made a final fundraising push in December, but raised only 4% of the previous December's total.
The school will close after the last day of the year, May 24.
Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this report.