Donald Trump made a brief visit to a black church in the heart of the majority-black city of Detroit, the latest step in his faltering and often awkward effort to soften the edges of a candidacy hardened by racially tinged appeals that have resonated primarily with white Republicans.

In what the pastor said was Trump's first visit to an African-American church, the GOP presidential nominee swayed to gospel music, held a baby, accepted a prayer shawl and told the congregation he was there to listen to their concerns. Then he left the service before it was halfway over, briefly visited the childhood home of former rival Ben Carson before jetting out of town.

"Our nation is too divided," Trump said at Great Faith Ministries International Church, reading from a script to a congregation that half-filled the sanctuary but greeted him with polite applause. "We talk past each other, not to each other. And those who seek office do not do enough to step into the community and learn what's going on. They don't know. They have no clue."

It was another jarring shift in tone and message for a GOP nominee who has weaved back and forth in recent attempts to appeal to African-Americans and other minority groups who overwhelmingly oppose him.

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Republicans John McCain received 4 per cent of the black vote in 2008 and Mitt Romney won 6 per cent in 2012. Polls show Trump has the support of 3 per cent of black voters, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has 91 per cent. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he was frustrated by Trump's sweeping promises to instantly end poverty and crime in major cities like his. Such problems cannot be blamed only on Democrats who dominate these cities, he said, but also on Republicans at state and federal levels who have created policies that are a factor.