Over lunch at Hunter Museum, Chattanooga Christian leaders launch new charitable initiative

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Melissa McKeldin speaks at the Hunter Museum of American Art on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Melissa McKeldin speaks at the Hunter Museum of American Art on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.

Local Christian leaders and their colleagues braved the rain Tuesday morning and converged on the Hunter Museum of American Art. They took seats around 30 or so white-table-clothed circular tables overlooking the Tennessee River.

Maria Matthews approached the podium. She's the director of giving at the Generosity Trust, a Chattanooga nonprofit organization that seeks to "advance the cause of Christ" and help Christians make tax-deductible charitable grants to Church ministries and other eligible organizations.

The 200-plus luncheon attendees convened to launch an initiative in support of Christian groups connected to African-Americans. The new fund reflects a desire by the organization, which gives tens of millions of dollars annually, to work with an array of donors and beneficiaries that more closely resembles the Chattanooga Christian community.

"Your love for the community is evident in your desire to respond to the things that break God's heart," said Matthews, directing her remarks to the planning committee of the new initiative, which has been named "Sharing God's Goodness." The committee consisted of local religious figures such as Kingdom Partners President Oliver Richmond, who spoke after Matthews. He then yielded to another organizer, Grace Pointe Church pastor Marcellus Barnes, who sang and played music for the assembled.

The holidays are a time when Chattanoogans, and millions of others around the U.S., more seriously consider their charitable giving. For decades, the Generosity Trust has facilitated the task for Christian-minded givers through its donor-advised funds.

These funds are essentially investment accounts for charitable donations. Donors use them to centralize their tax-deductible donations, simplify what might otherwise be a complex tax return -- and receive an immediate tax write-off, even if they wait to disburse the money.

Generosity Trust is the public-facing name of the Chattanooga Christian Community Foundation. Initially formed to manage the family foundation of Dora Maclellan Brown, the Generosity Trust now manages roughly 700 donor-advised funds, which in 2021 doled out more than $30 million in grants, largely in the Chattanooga area, said Matthews by phone after the event.

Matthews said the recipients are too varied to name, but the money can go to any nonprofit church, ministry, school or other organization, as long as it is not "antithetical to our Christian beliefs."

Many of these funds are managed for the wealthy Lookout and Signal Mountain-set, said Generosity Trust President Jim Barber by phone before the event Tuesday.

"My heart was burdened by the fact that we don't reflect the Christian community of Chattanooga," Barber said. "We don't look like Chattanooga as a community foundation."

Barber said he discussed this with Matthews, and they decided to create certain funds that invited small-scale donations, oriented toward different specific groups. In recent years, the Generosity Trust has helped organize these "giving circles," as it calls them, for women, millennials and Latinos.

"Sharing God's Goodness," the new African-American-oriented group, seeks to raise $60,000 by early next year for its inaugural grants, which will go to small nonprofit organizations connected to the Black community, according to a pamphlet from the event.

A minimum $50 monthly donation grants entry into the group and the power to nominate and vote on recipients.

"It's accessible," Matthews said. "That's what we want."

The Tuesday luncheon was largely populated by people brought in by "table hosts" hailing from throughout the Chattanooga religious community, including Harrison United Methodist Church pastor Adam McKee, Moody Radio host Tabi Upton and the ecumenical group Chattanooga House of Prayer.

Waiters served chicken salads. Orchids sat on every table, and an object making out the word "generosity" hung on the support structure of every flower.

As forks clinked on plates, Rodney Bullard took the stage. The Chattanooga-raised son of an NFL player, he considered the meaning of his long and high-powered career in government and beyond, leading up to his post at Chick-fil-A, where he now serves as the vice president of corporate social responsibility.

He pointed out the diversity of the audience and implored everyone to stand and hold hands and to squeeze each other's hands. All did as told.

"We are one humanity, one people, all at the same place at the same time," he said. "We are not here by accident."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431. Follow him on Twitter @aonSchwartz.

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