By Kathleen Gray and Katrease Stafford
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's trip to Flint was billed as a visit to learn about the Flint water crisis in a community that has been suffering through more than two years of using bottled water for the most basic of needs.
He swept in and was greeted by groups of supporters and critics alike at Bishop International Airport in Flint, as well as those who lined the streets along his travel route and outside of his scheduled stops. Trump took a brief tour of the Flint water treatment plant before heading to Bethel United Methodist Church, where opponents booed loudly as his motorcade arrived and left.
Trump spoke to about 70 guests at the church, but his remarks were cut short by protesters and a pastor who politely admonished the New York businessman to stick to a non-political speech. Trump, in turn, politely abided by the pastor's request, ending his comments by saying he would fix the problems in Flint -- a dearth of jobs and the water problem -- if he were elected president.
But he offered no concrete solutions or specific plans on how to make the transition from bottled to safe drinking water, or bring back jobs. And his comments and appearance were taken with a grain of salt in a city with a population that is majority African American and that predominantly supports Democrats, especially in presidential elections.
"It used to be that cars were made in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico. And now the cars are made in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint," Trump said at the church. "It's terrible."
His remarks were interrupted -- he spoke for just over five minutes -- after protesters interrupted his speech with questions about housing discrimination and Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Faith Green Timmons, stepped in when Trump began criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for supporting trade deals like NAFTA that he called one of the worst trade deals in the history of America, "probably in the history of the world," and that he said have contributed to the economic downfall of cities like Flint.
Trump wrapped up his comments by saying the damage that has been done in Flint can be corrected "by people who know what they're doing ... I will say that we can fix this problem. It's going to take time. It's amazing the damage that has been done."
Before he left the stage, Trump also commented on one of the big news stories of the day -- that Ford was moving 100% of its small car production to Mexico.
"We shouldn't allow it to happen," he said. "They'll make their cars, they'll employ thousands and thousands of people, not from this country ... and we'll have nothing but more unemployment in Flint."
Explaining her actions after Trump's speech, Timmons said: "I thought he wanted to see that we gave out food and water, and when his statement went beyond what he originally said, I asked him to stick to what he was originally going to say. He's welcome to come and see what we're doing in Flint. We're doing well. We're helping those in need. And I wanted him to see the best of Flint.
"And some of the statements I've heard him say about African-Americans and Hispanics have been degrading," Timmons added.
Erik Shelley, of the Michigan People's Campaign, was inside the church with about 70 other people and tried to ask Trump a question about claims that his family had discriminated against blacks in rental housing. But Trump didn't acknowledge the question and Shelley was asked to leave the church.
"We hoped there would be a question and answer period and there wasn't," Shelley said. "What he was trying to do was use us as a backdrop. The people of Flint are real, they're not a backdrop."
Brittany Ross was one of the few Trump supporters who hoped to catch a glimpse of Trump at the church, saying she was going to cast her first-ever vote for president for Trump.
"I love that he truly is an anti-establishment politician," said the 21-year-old Mt. Morris resident. "I truly believe that Trump is the best way to get away from what we've had with the last few presidencies."
And Jerome Barney, an attorney from Southfield who also was inside the church, said he thought Trump was sincere, although he had hoped that more Flint people would have been allowed into the church to hear his remarks.
"He just said that Flint is in a bad situation and if he's elected to president, he'll alleviate the situation," Barney said. "He's here to win a presidency. He's here to say he's here for everybody. We understand that black folks have a certain mindset, they listen to forces that haven't done anything for them for the last 40 years."
Before his talk inside, a gaggle of curious onlookers and media had gathered outside Wednesday afternoon, waiting for Trump's arrival.
Many may have wanted to hear what Trump was going to say, but they were out of luck. The meeting was closed to the public and all but a select pool of mostly national media.
Sharon C., a Flint resident who didn't want to give her last name, sat outside the church helping to hand out the cases of water that residents in Flint still have to depend on instead of drinking tap water that has been contaminated with lead.
"We'll give him respect and let him come, but I don't follow the things that he's said," she said. "I don't think he's sincere coming here to the black neighborhood. He's just doing a photo op."
Clyde Edwards, 85, of Flint, said he has no intention of voting for Trump, adding that Hillary Clinton is his only choice for president.
"What is there to like about him? He's been bankrupted so many times," he said. "Why would I vote for someone like that?"
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press