DETROIT — Donald Trump was in Detroit on Saturday morning to make his first visit to a black church and his first ever campaign stop in an African-American community. His host was the prosperity preacher Bishop Wayne Jackson, who welcomed the GOP presidential nominee for part of a service, and spoke with Trump for an interview that was closed to media but is scheduled to be broadcast later in the month.
Inside Great Faith Ministries, on the city’s west side, the reception for Trump was warm, if restrained. But a crowd of some hundred protesters outside was skeptical about the motivations of Trump’s stated outreach to African-Americans, a community that overwhelmingly opposes his candidacy, polls show.
“He’s not talking to us,” said the Rev. Lawrence Glass, senior pastor of El Bethel Church in Detroit. “He’s just trying to get those swing voters. But we know who he is. Too little, too late.”
He was part of a group of interfaith clergy — including an imam from Dearborn Heights, Mich. — who gathered outside the church to register their objections to Trump’s “rhetoric and fear-mongering,” said Glass.
Great Faith Ministries is in the part of Detroit that doesn’t show up in glowing profiles of the city’s economic revitalization. It’s several miles from downtown, from the Fox Theater, Comerica Park and the exposed-brick coffeehouses and doggy daycares of Midtown. This is where manufacturing left decades ago and isn’t coming back.
In remarks that were slotted into the morning’s schedule at the last minute, Trump recalled driving through the neighborhood on his way to the church. “We see all those closed stores, and people sitting down on the sidewalk, and no jobs and no activity,” said Trump. “We’ll get it turned around, Pastor. Believe me. I want to work with you to renew the bonds of trust between citizens, and the bonds of faith that make our nation strong.”
But it’s those bold promises with few specifics that bother Detroiters like the Rev. James Perkins, who leads Greater Christ Baptist church and founded a housing nonprofit that builds low-income single-family homes in the city. “What is his track record?” Perkins asked while Trump spoke inside. “What is his urban revitalization plan? How would he address economic injustice? He talks about militarizing the police. Does he understand how that endangers our lives?”
Other protesters expressed a similar concern in more stark language on a large white banner they unfurled. Referencing the pitch Trump has made to black voters over the past month, the banner read: “‘What do you have to lose?’ Everything.”
Inside the church, Trump spoke of the need for “a civil rights agenda for our time.” He said that he understood “the African-American community has suffered from discrimination,” and he read a Bible verse, boasting, “Most groups I speak to don’t know [1 John 4:12]. But we know it.”
After Trump finished speaking, Bishop Jackson presented the candidate with a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), draping it over his shoulders, and two copies of the Jewish Heritage Study Bible (one copy for Melania).
Like many of Trump’s high-profile evangelical supporters and nearly all of his African-American sympathizers, Jackson is from the prosperity gospel wing of evangelical Christianity, which teaches that God rewards faithful believers with material wealth and good health. Jackson himself owns a 39,000-square-foot home with 10 marble fireplaces that was once owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. He also identifies with a philo-Semitic strand of evangelicalism that incorporates some elements of Judaism, such as the tallit (over which Jackson said he had “prayed and fasted”) and the shofar-like horn that sounded before Trump entered the main hall.
In other words, Trump’s first visit to a black church wasn’t to one of the more traditional social- justice-oriented, theologically orthodox congregations that politicians of both parties often favor. Commenting on that distinction outside Great Faith Ministries, the Rev. Steve Bland Jr. of Liberty Temple Baptist noted, “Trump said he wanted to go to a black church. Well, he went to a black church. But we are a diverse people. If you really want to know who we are, here we are.”
Bland continued: “Is he coming to worship or to address issues? He should be engaging people in a dialogue if he really wants to get some answers.”
Before the morning service, Trump did reportedly have an opportunity to speak briefly with selected members of the congregation, although no members of the press were allowed to observe the meeting. The campaign had hinted that Trump’s real opportunity to engage Detroit’s black residents would happen during a walking tour of Detroit. In the end, the walking tour was replaced by a stop at the childhood home of Ben Carson, Trump’s former GOP rival turned supporter.
The two men spent five minutes at Carson’s former house before getting back in their cars, but they did have time to meet the home’s current occupant. She’s voting for Hillary Clinton.