President Donald Trump met with a group of predominantly black pastors at the White House Monday as he continued to criticize one of the more prominent African American members of Congress and the city he represents.
Along with Vice President Mike Pence, Trump met with a group of about 20 clergy as they discussed the progress the administration is making on a number of issues impacting inner cities such as employment, criminal justice, prison re-entry and opportunity zone initiatives.
The meeting comes almost a year after Trump met with a group of inner-city pastors last August to discuss similar issues to help their communities.
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Monday's meeting included: Maryland Bishop Harry Jackson, a social conservative who pastors Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland; Bishop Darrell Hines of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; pastor and gospel singer Marvin Winans Jr.; Pastor Bill Winston of Living Word Christian Center in Illinois; the niece of Martin Luther King Jr. and Trump supporter, Alveda King; Las Vegas Pastor Benny Perez; and the Rev. Bill Owens, founder of the Coalition of African American Pastors.
Photos of the meeting posted to Pence's official @VP Twitter account and later removed show that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson also participated in the meeting. Pence's account later posted another tweet without photos that called the meeting "productive."
"These Pastors have put their faith to work in their own communities, revitalizing inner cities and delivering positive results while working with President @realDonaldTrump on so many important initiatives," Pence's tweet reads.
According to Jackson, the meeting was a follow-up to the White House meeting with inner-city pastors Trump held last year, many of whom were also in attendance for Monday’s meeting. Many pastors who attended the meeting last year received criticism for their decision to participate from those in the African American community who oppose Trump.
“What I was impressed by is how much support we got from the African American pastors,” Jackson told The Christian Post of Monday's meeting. “And they're basically saying that we realize that we’re in a volatile, contentious political environment but we think that Trump has been more than faithful in just following up and making sure things that he promises he does.”
The meeting comes on the heels of a weekend in which Trump took to Twitter to criticize House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Rep. Elijah Cummings, calling his congressional district, which includes parts of Baltimore, as a rat infested and crime ridden place “no human being would want to live.”
Trump also called the 68-year-old African American lawmaker “racist” and said that “his radical ‘oversight’ is a joke.” Trump did not let up on his criticisms Monday, labeling left-leaning activist Al Sharpton — who has been accused of anti-Semitism and inciting fatal race riots, as reported by the Federalist — as a "con man" as he traveled to Baltimore to criticize Trump's remarks against the city and Cummings.
East Baltimore Pastor Donte Hickman said he turned down the offer to join the White House meeting because he was unavailable, The Baltimore Sun reports, adding that he wasn't sure if the invitation was in response to Trump's remarks on Cummings and the city.
Hickman added that he invited the president to visit him in Baltimore last year and that invitation still stands.
“I think it’s important for the president to engage with and really see the community of which he talks about and has talked about giving support to," Hickman told The Baltimore Sun.
Jackson told CP that the Cummings ordeal had “no bearing” on the timing of the White House meeting from a “macro” level. However, the meeting was not listed on the president's public schedule Monday.
“I think it was on the White House’s mind a long time ago,” Jackson said, adding that he wasn’t sure when the decision was made to have the meeting on Monday. “I talked about this trip and coming back together again. And pretty much, it's all about locking down schedules. And then, you get a short framework. But I would have expected it to happen a couple of months ago, actually.”
During the meeting, Jackson said that pastors discussed everything from the administration’s work to lower unemployment in the African American community, the creation of opportunity zones to provide tax incentives for investment in low-income communities, and the passing of the bipartisan criminal justice reform and other advancements that will help inner-city communities.
“We talked about everything from religious liberties, to life issues. So what impressed me was the positivity,” Jackson added.
“So it sounded like [it would be for] evangelicals who support Trump with one important exception. And that is that in black communities, there's a lot of backlash against the president and a lot of name calling. But in that room, they were saying, ‘Hey, if our people got a chance to hear your hearts as we heard, they wouldn’t think the way some of them think.’
Pastor Kyle Searcy of the multiracial Fresh Anointing House of Worship in Montgomery, Alabama, also participated in Monday's meeting just as he did last year.
“I offered a strategy for entrepreneurial development and training in the inner cities of America, as well as in prisons. I know the administration has a great deal of acumen in the business realm,” Searcy told CP. “And my suggestion was to begin to take those skills and that interest and begin to incentivize corporations that provide entrepreneurial training and development that can stem the tide of poverty and other things.”
“The president was listening to us. He wanted to hear what we had to say,” Searcy continued. “And he was listening for our thoughts on what he has done, and things he could do in the future. That's the spirit of the meeting.”
Jackson, who was a member of the Trump 2016 campaign's evangelical advisery committee and has engaged informally with the administration on different occasions, assured that the political makeup of the group in Monday's meeting was “bipartisan.”
“Most blacks are liberal in their politics and conservative in their bank accounts,” Jackson said. “I know for a fact that [the group] was split [politically] because of the demographic and the church structure some of the people come out of. So I think that also was impressive. Because he got a positive response from a diverse group.”
After the meeting, Jackson, King, Owens and the Rev. Dean Nelson, the founder of the Douglass Leadership Institute, took questions from reporters outside of the White House. Owens responded to questions about whether Trump is racist.
"I find that hard to believe, considering the things he’s done for the black community," Owens said, according to ABC News. "Positive things for the black community."
Owens also refuted the idea that the meeting was merely a photo opportunity for Trump following his criticism of Cummings and Baltimore.
"Two hours of discussion, that's not a photo-op," Owens said, according to CNN, adding that the group discussed "the issues facing the black community, and there are many."
Trump’s criticism of Cummings comes after the Maryland Democrat was critical of conditions for migrants detained at the U.S. southern border during a congressional hearing this month. Trump called Cummings a “brutal bully” who has been “shouting and screaming at the great men and women of Border Patrol.”
As chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings has much leverage over committee probes into the administration’s activities. Cummings’ committee has investigated potential ethics and conflict of interest issues in the Trump administration, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Jackson, the bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, said that he has met Cummings before but doesn’t really know him personally.
“He’s earned his stripes. He’s an icon and I think most African Americans know who he is,” Jackson said of Cummings. “He has respect but the real question right now is who is carrying the torch for African American civil rights? Who is carrying the torch in this generation for economic justice that many blacks and Hispanics still feel like we really need to get an even playing field? I would dare say that I am not so sure they would think Elijah Cummings is a banner carrier of that.”
During the meeting with Trump on Monday, Jackson said he specifically talked about how opportunity zone initiatives are being undertaken in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore suburbs among the 8,700 opportunity zones designated nationwide.
As a Maryland pastor who lives and pastors in between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Jackson was asked what he thought of Trump’s unfavorable description of the Charm City. Trump called Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess” and the “worst” congressional district in the U.S.
“If I can be totally blunt, I think everybody that lives around here knows that Baltimore’s poverty level is excessive, there have been problems since [the death of] Freddie Gray [in 2015]. We have had a lot of economic issues and safety issues, etcetera,” Jackson told CP. “It is no secret we have economic needs, educational needs, and safety needs. I am saddened that we had to have controversy over those needs instead of tangible efforts of help.”
Jackson explained that he had been a registered Democrat for most of his life but is now an outspoken conservative.
“I can’t help but think these [Democrat lawmakers] often exercise a politics of grievance to cry out and make complaints. Honestly, [they] don’t pass laws. [Cummings'] district probably isn’t that well cared for but that is part of the old-guard failures of the black political engagement machine,” Jackson contended.
“What I felt like you had in that room today was African Americans, some who had master’s degrees in mathematics, business degrees or law degrees who have old-fashioned, cornbread-and-beans Bible message but they have a laptop. They are verbally supporting the president more along the vein of saying, 'We are looking at the results, we are not looking at rhetoric. We are looking at the results, we are not looking at this repetitious blaming, naming scenario.'”