Updated Sept. 3, 2016 4:51 p.m. ET
DETROIT— Donald Trump kicked off an initiative to reach inner-city voters Saturday, calling for social unity and pledging to listen to African-Americans during a short speech to an evangelical church on Detroit’s west side.
While rarely straying from his scripted remarks and speaking in a soft tone, the Republican presidential candidate addressed issues he believes black voters are considering with little more than two months before Election Day. His stop in the Motor City was the first in an expected series of outreach efforts as he aims to cut into Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s sizable lead among black voters.
“I fully understand the African-American community has suffered from discrimination,” Mr. Trump said. He referenced disparities in education, employment and public safety, and promised to bring “prosperity” to lower-income Americans.
“We need a civil-rights agenda for our time,” Mr. Trump said. The remarks were made at Great Faith Ministries, one of the dozens of churches that dot the corridor connecting the Detroit’s downtown district to the western suburbs.
Parishioners lined the church’s perimeter several hours before the start of the regular weekly service, holding tickets needed for admission. Some also wore T-shirts with the slogan “My Voice Counts.”
After the churchgoers entered the building, hundreds of protesters appeared outside, including one with a sign reading “Mr. Hate, leave my state.” One of the protesters, 69-year-old Thomas Wilson Jr. of Detroit, said “The xenophobic guy that started this race last year is the same man that’s coming to this church today.”
Inside the church, Mr. Trump was greeted with modest applause after being introduced shortly after 11 a.m. local time. The room was filled to nearly half its capacity, with about 1,200 in attendance, according to church officials.
The congregation applauded most supportively in response to Mr. Trump’s quotation of the portion of 1 John 4, which commands readers to love one another. During the short worship service, Mr. Trump stood clapping, dancing and smiling.
Mr. Trump’s visit to an economically-depressed section of Detroit came following several days of build up during which it was unclear if he would make remarks to a congregation largely populated by African-Americans, or just visit while meeting black leaders behind closed doors. Many protesters and those using social media in Detroit and the surrounding area criticized the church for hosting Mr. Trump and suggested it was a ratings grab for the organization’s Impact Network television operation.
Prior to the service, Mr. Trump conducted a one-on-one interview with Bishop Wayne Jackson, Great Faith’s pastor and a self-proclaimed lifelong Democrat. That conversation will be aired by the Impact Network on Thursday.
Ben Carson, a former rival in the race for the Republican nomination and now an adviser, traveled to Detroit with Mr. Trump and Omarosa Manigault, who runs the campaign’s African-American outreach. Mr. Trump then drove with Mr. Carson to the adviser’s childhood home in Southwest Detroit for a brief visit.
Mr. Carson’s old stamping ground, several miles from the church, isn’t a neighborhood reflected in the popular view of a burned-out Detroit portrayed in pictures of abandoned lots and dilapidated houses.
Mr. Trump, in fact, visited a neighborhood with well-kept houses and meticulously-maintained lawns. Still, residents of the area are mourning the recent killing of a man who was known to make meals for neighbors, according to a retired police officer living near Mr. Carson’s old house.
In an interview near the steps of his old home after Mr. Trump departed, Mr. Carson said outreach is under way with leaders in more big cities to allow more discussion on how to address inequality. The outreach is also a chance to get acquainted with a group often seen as hostile to some of the messages at the core of the Republican nominee’s campaign.
“It’s a matter of exposure,” Mr. Carson said. “He gets an opportunity to hear what is important to them.”
During the service, Mr. Jackson made light of Mr. Trump’s trip. “This is the first African-American church he’s been in ya’ll,” Mr. Jackson said. The minister later prayed for Mr. Trump and gave him a Jewish prayer shawl and a Jewish heritage study Bible.
Mr. Trump praised African-American churches’ historic impact on the pursuit of justice in the U.S. and said churches such as Great Faith need a bigger platform.
Although Rinia Shelby-Crooms doesn’t support Mr. Trump, she echoed other parishioners in saying she appreciated seeing his “softer” side. Still, Ms. Shelby-Crooms, 36, criticized what she perceived to be a narrow view of black life in America.
She said Mr. Trump’s opinion appears to be “you’re gonna get shot, you don’t have housing, you don’t have jobs, you don’t have school, everybody is struggling—and that is not the case.”
Write to John D. Stoll at email@example.com
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