DETROIT — Donald Trump made a brief visit Saturday morning to a black church in the heart of this majority-black city, the latest step in his faltering and often awkward effort to soften the edges of a candidacy hardened by racially tinged appeals that have resonated primarily with white Republicans.
In what the pastor said was Trump’s first visit to an African American church, the GOP presidential nominee swayed to gospel music, held a baby, accepted a prayer shawl and told the congregation he was there to listen to their concerns. Then he left the service before it was half over, and briefly visited the childhood home of former rival Ben Carson before jetting out of town.
“Our nation is too divided,” Trump said at Great Faith Ministries International Church, reading from a script to a congregation that half-filled the sanctuary but greeted him with polite applause. “We talk past each other, not to each other. And those who seek office do not do enough to step into the community and learn what’s going on. They don’t know. They have no clue.”
It was another jarring shift in tone and message for a GOP nominee who has weaved back and forth in recent attempts to appeal to African Americans and other minority groups who overwhelmingly oppose him, while holding fast to sharp criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for tougher policing tactics and a plan to forcibly eject millions of undocumented immigrants from the country.
While several members of Great Faith Ministries said they were impressed that Trump visited their church and are willing to consider him, others were skeptical of his motives.
“When somebody wants something from you, and they say the right words — I would have liked to hear him say those things before he wanted something,” said Kim Witten, who has belonged to the church for 20 years and usually votes for Democrats, although she is still praying about this election. “It was a very good speech. Whoever helped him did a good job on it. But I know that he wants something, so it’s hard for me to 100 percent agree.”
But Nathan Liverman, 29, a Detroit small-business owner who wore a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt under his blazer to the service, said that “you could feel it was authentic, that it was to heart.”
“I think people learned from Trump is that he’s a person that has a heart, that’s really authentic and is very open,” he said. “I think it was a learning experience on both sides.”
Before the 1930s, most African Americans were registered Republicans and voted that way. But they have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates starting in 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt got 71 percent of the black vote, and peaking at 96 percent for Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president in 2008.
Republican John McCain received 4 percent of the black vote in 2008 and Mitt Romney won 6 percent in 2012. In an average of Washington Post-ABC News polls for July and August, Trump had the support of 3 percent of black voters, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was at 91 percent.
Outside the church on Saturday, local Democrats and a group of local faith leaders held news conferences to denounce Trump as divisive. A few hundred protesters gathered, with some carrying signs reading: “Mr. Hate, Leave My State” and “Stop the racist!” At one point, the crowd chanted, “No KKK!”
For several weeks, Trump has made an aggressive appeal to black voters — and to moderate white Republicans — by accusing Clinton and her party of pushing policies that have “produced only poverty, joblessness, failing schools and broken homes” in inner cities. Trump has promised to quickly fix the problems, boasting during one recent rally in a white suburb of Lansing, Mich., “At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African American vote, I promise you.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) said Saturday he was frustrated by Trump’s sweeping promises to instantly end poverty and crime in major cities like his. Such problems cannot be blamed only on Democrats who dominate these cities, he said, but also on Republicans at the state and federal levels who have created policies that are also a factor.
“We fight every day to bring down the violence rate, and we are making progress — and when you stand up and say, ‘I and only I can stop crime in cities in America,’ tell us how you are going to do it,” Duggan said at a news conference in a vacant lot near the church Trump visited. “Sounds like he has some mystical, magical method that he’s going to reveal to America sometime after his election.”
As reporters asked Duggan and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) questions, a local activist jumped in.
“How is it that Donald Trump can come up into the city of Detroit today to speak at the church across the street — the streets are blocked off for half a mile that way or half a mile that way?” asked Agnes Hitchcock, 70, who lives within walking distance of the church. “So how is it that he gets to come up in here, in peace, and walk up to those doors and pretend that he’s here to talk to black people?”
Great Faith Ministries sits on a busy industrial road lined with abandoned stores and overgrown empty lots dotted with wildflowers and tires. In the surrounding neighborhood, there were a few homes that had been carefully maintained but many more were boarded up, burned out or had more broken windows than intact ones.
Trump arrived at about 10:25 a.m. with a motorcade of more than two dozen motorcycles and 10 black SUVs. Armed law enforcement officers stood on nearby rooftops, and police officers on the ground yelled at curious locals to get back as they tried to get a glimpse of the GOP nominee.
Inside the church, Trump met privately with prominent church members and did an interview with Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, the church pastor who also owns a Christian broadcasting network. The interview is expected to air Thursday.
“I just wrote this the other day, knowing I’d be here,” Trump said in his remarks to the congregation, “and I mean it from the heart and I’d like to just read it and I think maybe you’ll understand it better than I do.”
Trump praised African American churches for being “one of God’s greatest gifts to America and to its people” and “the conscience of our country,” especially in leading the civil rights movement.
The remarks were heavy on messages of unity and did not include any direct political attacks. The crowd applauded vigorously several times when Trump praised Jackson and his family, with more scattered clapping at other moments.
Trump called for parents to have more choice in their public schools and promised to create more jobs, the kind that pay well and are enjoyable. He told the crowd that he knows the African American community is “suffering,” and he pledged to help rebuild Detroit.
“I am here to listen to you, and I am doing that,” Trump said at one point.
Some black political activists and voters from both parties have long made an argument similar to Trump’s: that Democrats have not done enough to help African Americans who loyally give the party their votes.
But Trump’s approach in recent weeks has been widely criticized for broadly stereotyping minorities and for suggesting that he could instantly solve generations-old problems of poverty and violence. Until Saturday, Trump had turned down repeated invitations to address African American audiences.
Many black voters are also angry that Trump built his political brand by attacking the qualifications of the country’s first black president. Trump was a leader in the “birther” movement, accusing President Obama of not being born in the country, demanding to see the president’s birth certificate and academic records and wondering aloud if Obama was qualified to attend the Ivy League schools that accepted him.
“The message is legitimate, but the messenger is completely illegitimate — that’s the irony,” said Van Jones, a political activist and commentator. “African Americans have grumbled quietly for decades about our votes being taken for granted by Democrats, with us giving them 90 percent of our votes and getting one percent of the results that we need. But Donald Trump is not the right person to raise it because of his belligerence toward President Obama from Day One and the way he’s raising it. If anything, it will take him from 2 percent black support to zero percent black support.”
Tristin Wilkerson, co-founder of the nonpartisan Black and Brown People Vote activist group, said Trump’s message is hard to receive because “he has been so flat-out disrespectful and inconsiderate of African Americans and people of color and their contributions to this country.”
But Nina Turner, a former state senator in Ohio who was an outspoken backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the Democratic primaries, said that although she does not support Trump, he has a point about the Democratic Party and black voters.
“Even though it’s coming from him it doesn’t make it wrong,” Turner said. “He is raising a legitimate concern in the African American community.”
After leaving the church here around noon, Trump, Carson and an entourage of black surrogates made a brief stop at a bungalow in southwest Detroit where Carson grew up. Trump briefly spoke with the current owner, Felicia Reese, noting that Carson had made her home famous.
“This house is worth a lot of money!” Trump exclaimed.
He then hopped into the back seat of a SUV headed to the airport.
Williams reported from Washington.