Seeking Support and Invoking Faith, Donald Trump Visits a Black Church for the First Time

Seeking Support and Invoking Faith, Donald Trump Visits a Black Church for the First Time

DETROIT — Donald J. Trump, who has campaigned for president as a blunt provocateur, dismissing complaints of racial insensitivity as political correctness, took an uncharacteristic step on Saturday: He visited a black church for the first time and tried to blend in.


Flanked by a few black supporters, including Ben Carson, a former presidential candidate, and Omarosa Manigault, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” Mr. Trump cut a subdued figure here at Great Faith Ministries International.

He beamed as congregants greeted him and swayed to the chords of the song “What a Mighty God We Serve.” Speaking softly, he invoked the civil rights movement and Abraham Lincoln. Donning a prayer shawl given to him by the church’s pastor, Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, Mr. Trump proclaimed, “I feel better already.”

Mr. Trump is deeply unpopular with black voters and perceived by many as hostile to their community. His company has faced accusations of discrimination against black tenants; he has alleged falsely in the past that President Obama was not born in the United States; and as a champion of aggressive policing, he has stirred indignation by caricaturing black neighborhoods as blighted by crime and economic despair.

In Detroit, Mr. Trump did not express regret for, or even acknowledge, the actions and remarks that had opened a gulf between him and black voters.

Instead, reading from prepared remarks, he hailed the Christian values and political contributions of black Americans and told his audience he cared about making their lives better.

The Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump dons a prayer shawl given to him by Bishop Wayne T. Jackson at a service at the Great Faith Ministries International church in Detroit on Saturday.
The Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump dons a prayer shawl given to him by Bishop Wayne T. Jackson at a service at the Great Faith Ministries International church in Detroit on Saturday.

“I fully understand that the African-American community has suffered from discrimination and that there are many wrongs that must still be made right,” Mr. Trump said, adding: “For any who are hurting: Things are going to turn around. Tomorrow will be better.”

Mr. Trump’s visit to the church concluded a week of fitful outreach to black and Hispanic voters, capping off a frenzied campaign schedule that took him to Mexico’s presidential palace, to a meeting in North Philadelphia with black leaders, and finally to Detroit.

Far more than a typical Republican presidential candidate, Mr. Trump faces a wall of opposition from nonwhite voters. He records virtually no support from black voters in the polls. Their resistance has emerged as one of the most important impediments to Mr. Trump’s candidacy, threatening to put several major swing states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, entirely out of reach.

Mr. Trump’s appearance on Saturday, long billed by campaign aides as a pivotal opportunity to reintroduce himself to black voters, was swathed in uncertainty up to the last minute, as the Trump campaign and the pastor deliberated over whether the Republican nominee would actually speak at the church. Plans for stops in nearby neighborhoods were announced, then retracted; Mr. Trump ultimately paid a short visit to Mr. Carson’s childhood home before flying out of Detroit.

And a scheduled interview with Mr. Jackson, Mr. Trump’s host on Saturday, became a source of embarrassment when it was revealed that both the questions and Mr. Trump’s answers had been scripted in advance. Mr. Trump taped the television appearance before the church service on Saturday, and it is expected to air in the next few days on Mr. Jackson’s Christian cable network.

Mr. Jackson acknowledged offhand the unusual spectacle of Mr. Trump’s presence in his church. Introducing Mr. Trump, Mr. Jackson noted with a chuckle, “This is the first African-American church he’s been in.”

Mr. Trump and Ben Carson visit Felicia Reese, the current owner of Mr. Carson’s childhood home, in Detroit.
Mr. Trump and Ben Carson visit Felicia Reese, the current owner of Mr. Carson’s childhood home, in Detroit.

Mr. Jackson had planned to let Mr. Trump speak for just one minute, but at a reception before the service, aides to Mr. Trump asked Mr. Jackson for more time, and he granted it.

“His people said, ‘Mr. Trump had already written this out and he really feels that if he can say it, it would really be a blessing because this is his heart,’” Mr. Jackson said in an interview.

In his relatively muted address, lasting roughly 10 minutes, Mr. Trump did not employ his typical heated language about urban crime or illegal immigration.

Instead, he offered praise for black Christians and called for a “civil rights agenda for our time,” including support for charter schools and new job growth.

And Mr. Trump, who has not made professions of faith a regular element of his campaign, called on Americans to “turn again to our Christian heritage to lift up the soul of our nation.”

Leaving the church, Mr. Trump made a stop at the former residence of Mr. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has become one of Mr. Trump’s steadfast political allies. Bantering briefly with the current owner, Felicia Reese, Mr. Trump mused that the house must be a valuable property because Mr. Carson had lived there.

Ms. Manigault, who directs outreach efforts for the Trump campaign, told Ms. Reese that the campaign would send her a copy of Mr. Trump’s book of business advice, “The Art of the Deal.”

It remains to be seen if Mr. Trump will make a more sustained bid to attract black support. His campaign advisers have routinely announced changes in strategy, and promised adjustments to Mr. Trump’s message and political style, only to have the candidate quickly lose interest and revert to form. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump followed up his surprise trip to Mexico City, where he expressed admiration for Mexican Americans, with an angry speech in Arizona denouncing illegal immigration and reiterating his pledge to wall off the southern border.

But for Mr. Trump, winning the presidency might be all but impossible without a reversal of fortune with black and Hispanic voters. While Republicans usually lose those constituencies by a wide margin, polls suggest Mr. Trump is on track for such a historic rout that he may be unable to make up the difference with white voters.

Mr. Jackson weathered some criticism for inviting Mr. Trump, and his own parishioners were split on Mr. Trump’s visit, with several expressing support for Mr. Jackson’s decision despite their own negative feelings about Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Candice Smith, 31, of Detroit, said she had been attending the church for 20 years and considered it a welcoming environment.

“We accept anybody,” said Ms. Smith, a cosmetologist. “We are kind of like an open church. Everybody is welcome to come.”

Jan Counts, 55, a computer designer, expressed skepticism of Mr. Trump’s intentions, and said it was too late for Mr. Trump to win his vote.

“I think he’s using the church,” said Mr. Counts, a congregant since 1993. “You can’t just change everything that you have been saying before and say something else and want me to believe that.”

If Mr. Trump found himself in an atypical environment on Saturday, so, too, did his press corps. At many Trump rallies, supporters of the candidate often jeer at reporters, sometimes walking up to the enclosure for the traveling press to fling obscenities.

On Saturday, a woman in the congregation approached the press corps in a different spirit. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said, proceeding to hug each reporter in sight.

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