MUSCATINE, Iowa — Donald Trump attended a church service here on Sunday that served as both a gesture of fellowship to evangelical voters and another sign of the Republican front-runner’s attention to retail politics ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
The stop comes as Trump is competing directly with his chief rival in the Iowa caucus race, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for the support of religious conservatives, a deeply influential voting bloc.
Trump, a Presbyterian, visited the First Presbyterian Church, where he sat in the fifth row and clasped his hands in prayer as he listened to the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Pam Saturnia, urge those in attendance to “unite our hearts and minds as we worship God.”
Saturnia also referred to the immigration debate, which for months has propelled Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination.
“Syrian refugees and Mexican migrants,” Saturnia said, should be welcomed rather than shunned by Americans.
“Instead of feeling rage at Jesus that we have to share him, we are called to do just that,” she said in her sermon. “Share Jesus with the ones who need him.”
In a news conference later Sunday, Trump said he heard that message and remains an opponent of illegal immigration and of allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States.
“I can only tell you that I want to take care of all people but with Syrians, we just can’t do it here. But I do want to build a safe zone [in Syria],” Trump said. “We should have done that a long time ago.”
As the elderly organist played songs of praise, Trump stood and nodded along. When attendees responded together to hymnals, Trump joined them, tracing his finger along a paper pamphlet. He sat next to Debra Whitaker, 59, a Trump supporter and the mother of the late Dustin Whitaker, an Iowa National Guard member and Purple Heart winner who was killed in a 2012 motorcycle accident after serving in Iraq.
The Bible reading of 1 Corinthians 12 appeared to pique the real-estate mogul’s interest and his head turned toward the lectern as a woman from the congregation spoke about humility.
“I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blow up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are part of,” the woman intoned.
“Can you imagine eye telling hand, ‘Get lost, I don’t need you?’ Or, head telling foot, ‘You’re fired, your job has been phased out?’” the woman continued.
“I heard that. I wonder if that was for me,” Trump said at the news conference. “They didn’t even know I was coming so I doubt it. But it was an appropriate phrase… Humility. Perhaps she had something in mind.”
“I have more humility than people think,” he added.
During the offering of peace, Trump grasped hands and said, “Peace be with you” to a dozen people who approached him. When a young girl asked him for a selfie picture as well as a handshake, he paused for a moment but then bowed down and obliged, flashing a grin before he returned to his seat in the wooden aisle.
More picture requests came before the service.
Trump stood and smiled next to the drum kit for the church’s band and window panes of gold-tinged stained glass.
As he entered the church, Trump was asked about what his faith meant to him and he replied, “A lot.”
“Very good, beautiful,” Trump said when asked about how it felt to be in Iowa for a service.
Unlike most Trump events that are covered live on cable television, Trump’s morning visit was only covered by a small pool of print reporters and photographers.
The church, a red-bricked historic building in the downtown area, counts about 220 members, according to its website. It was established in 1839.
The service began at 10:15 a.m., with about 100 people attending.
Trump landed at Muscatine’s municipal airport shortly before 10 a.m. and along with his aides stepped past piles of snow into his waiting motorcade. He spent the previous evening in Pella, Iowa, after holding a rally at Central College. Later Sunday, Trump held a rally at a high school in Muscatine.