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Trump is visiting this black church in Detroit — no one knows what to expect

'We're loving people here. He's not going to come to any hostile booby-trapped hateful environment.'
Bishop Wayne T. Johnson in his office at Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, Michigan. Scott Conroy

As he paces the stage at Great Faith Ministries weekly Bible class on Tuesday night, it's clear that Bishop Wayne T. Jackson knows how to command an audience.

Dressed in a navy-blue suit, crisp white shirt, and gold tie, Jackson feeds off of the beat set by the drummer and keyboardist who played beside him. "I come to make some noise," he declared, as worshipers swayed to the music, shouting "Hallelujah!" with outstretched arms.


Jackson is no stranger to hosting famous political visitors. He has drawn just about every prominent national and Michigan Democratic politician to his church over the last couple of decades, and he even met with George W. Bush during the Republican president's second term in office.

But today Jackson is preparing his congregation for a controversial figure to take a seat in the pews on Saturday: Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign, the 2016 Republican presidential nominee has appeared mostly in front of white audiences, and he has been criticized for ignoring black voters. His visit to Great Faith Ministries will be the first visit of his campaign to a black church.

With good reason: while Trump criticizes Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party for talking down to blacks or taking them for granted, Trump's support among black voters is hovering between one and two percent, making him the least-popular Republican presidential nominee since 1948, according to a calculation by FiveThirtyEight. So while Jackson believes his parishioners are open to hearing from Trump, he's not entirely sure what kind of reception he's going to get.

"This weekend, we know we are having a guest here: presidential candidate, Mr. Donald Trump," Jackson said once the music had died down. "We are coming to listen, and we are Christians."

As controversial as Trump's planned visit here has been, among the congregation, there was only respectful applause and a couple calls of "that's right," perhaps an indication that the GOP nominee will be greeted politely. Indeed, everything about this particular congregation's posture indicated that it would be willing to listen to Trump, even as he has so often sounded tone deaf when it comes to black America.


"We're loving people here," Jackson said. "He's not going to come to any hostile booby-trapped hateful environment."

"Amen!" came the scattered replies.

"All of the hate out there, we must not be a part of it," the pastor continued. "All I'm asking you is to show your Christian love. Show your love. What would Jesus do?"

"Yes!" came the replies.

"You've got eyes and ears. See for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you me or anyone else who to vote for."

Trump won't make a speech at Great Faith Ministries; rather, Jackson is slated to interview the candidate after he sits in the pews and participates in the church's 11 a.m. service. The entire program will be broadcast on Jackson's Detroit-based cable channel, Impact Network—the nation's only independently-owned African-American Christian TV network.

The scheduled appearance provides Trump his first real opportunity to make at least some inroads among black voters; he's currently polling behind both Mitt Romney and John McCain, two losing Republican nominees who nevertheless were polling close to 5 percent among blacks in the months before their losing campaigns.

It won't be easy, but the people here are at least ready to listen.

Shevonne Taylor, who described herself as "a black woman with strong ties to my Mexican heritage" on her mother's side, said that she remains an undecided voter.

"I want to hear what this man's plan is for our community," she said. "This community is African-American, it's Arab, it's Hispanic. It's a huge melting pot. This is a testing ground for him that he has not been to. We're extremely excited that he's coming because we haven't had a Republican here I don't think ever."


In an interview from his office—which was decorated with photos of Presidents Obama and Clinton, Vice President Gore, and several other prominent Democrats—Jackson told Vice News that rather than turning the event into a staged spectacle, he intends to have a real conversation with Trump.

"I hear that all the time: 'Well, Mr. Trump is going to come to get a photo-op. He really don't care about nobody but himself,'" he said. "But let people figure that out. They say that about all politicians."

Jackson said that his Christian faith teaches him that it was important to sit down and talk to people with whom he disagrees.

Still, he didn't sugarcoat the extent of the bridge-building that needs to be done by a candidate whose recent response to the shooting death of an African-American woman on a Chicago street was to frame it as a political victory for himself, gloating about how the tragedy reflected "just what I had been saying."

Dwyane Wade's cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 27, 2016

Jackson said that Trump's prominent dabbling with birtherism was among the most damaging factors working against him.

"African-Americans still love Obama," he said. "I thank God that in my lifetime that I was able to see an African-American in the White House. Not only that an intellectual man. Not only that a man who is a father, a husband and responsible. So anyone talking about Obama in the African-American community, they will crash, no matter who it is."

"What do you have to lose?" It's the question that Trump has been asking lately of African-Americans and indicative to many of the extent to which the candidate maintains a cartoonish understanding of life in the black community.

For his part, Jackson is willing to extend the Republican nominee the benefit of the doubt before he meets him.

"You have a lot of African-Americans who have not been raised in the hood or raised in a situation where there's gunfire and you've got to run for your life every day," Jackson said. "I believe that he's trying to say the right thing, but it's not coming out the right way."