President Donald J. Trump’s waves to crowd as he exits Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Palm Beach, Florida on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Photo: Allen Eyestone / Palm Beach Post)
Pat Beall and George Bennett, Palm Beach Post
PALM BEACH, Fla.
The president came to pray.
But nothing about Donald Trump’s visits to Palm Beach is simple, and neither was his attendance at Easter service Sunday morning at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea during Trump’s seventh presidential visit to his Mar-a-Lago estate.
A line of worshippers in Easter florals and wide-brimmed hats snaked outside the front door, waiting for searches of purses and hoping for seats. Metal detectors were on-site, as were Secret Service agents in bulletproof vests. A double line of motorcycle cops parked in a side street. Traffic slowed in front of the church at 141 South County Road and then was stopped entirely prior to the presidential motorcade’s arrival at the church.
Across the street, long-time Trump supporter Lina Lindroos, of Hypoluxo, stood on the hood of a Trump-mobile, a high-profile homage on wheels to the president, an object of international attention cobbled together from three different cars. Standing nearby was her husband, Karl, a part of the Lantana Finnish community, which supported Trump.
Just around the corner from both, Lauren Lester, a Palm Beach resident in a pink hat and dress, held up a hand-lettered sign with the message, “Palm Beach is powered by immigrants.”
“I wouldn’t want to detract from the president’s Easter,” Lester said. “I pray for him as a person and as a president.”
But, she said, “I think it’s important to remember our immigrants here in Palm Beach, who prepare our meals, care for our young and our elderly.”
As Lester stood on the corner with her sign, a woman walked past, turned on her heels and came back, wagging her finger at Lester.
“Let me tell you something. I am Mexican, I am legal, I pay taxes and we need a wall!” she said angrily before walking away.
With his wife Susan and two daughters, Steve Sampson, an associate principal at Rutland High School in Virginia, also stopped to talk with Lester. Rutland was the object of national controversy when its mayor, who pushed to make the town a refugee resettlement center for Syrians and Iraqis, lost his bid for re-election.
The town was sharply divided over the issue, which “was near and dear to many people’s hearts,” Sampson said. For advocates of bringing refugees into the town, “it has made us even more dedicated” to the cause of immigrants, he said.
It’s doubtful the Trump entourage saw either Lester’s sign or the Trump-mobile.
A block away, the president, first lady Melania Trump, their son Barron, Trump’s daughter Tiffany, and the first lady’s parents entered the church for 11 a.m. services from a series of tents erected to give the family privacy.
The Rev. James Harlan, the church’s rector, gave a welcome message before the service with instructions on receiving communion — and turning off cellphones and cameras.
Most of congregation appeared not to be distracted by the president sitting in the pews, though some said Trump’s presence was significant.
“I think it does give a special meaning to the service to have the president here,” said Jim Beasley, a member at Bethesda. “I think it’s an old custom for presidents to go to church on Sunday, certainly on Easter and Christmas especially. It’s just a matter of where he chooses to go. I think it’s very impressive that he’s here, not just at Bethesda but here in Palm Beach.”
London resident Arthur McCalmont, who sat two rows away from the president, was relieved politics had been left outside the church doors. The service was “very nonpolitical, very noncontroversial,” he said.
“I did what was an almost an impossible thing to do for a Republican-easily won the Electoral College! Now Tax Returns are brought up again?” Trump tweeted. Later, he added: “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!”
The first family planned to brunch at Mar-a-Lago with Trump’s other sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., then hold an afternoon Easter egg hunt.
It was the first time in seven presidential Sundays at Mar-a-Lago that Trump did not visit his nearby Trump International Golf Club in unincorporated West Palm Beach. The president did get time on the course Friday and Saturday, however.
Trump left Mar-a-Lago around 3:50 p.m. Sunday for Palm Beach International Airport to return to Washington on Air Force One.
A couple dozen people watched at the foot of the Southern Boulevard Bridge as his motorcade made its way to the airport. Some were there to show support while others were just unexpectedly caught in traffic.
Regina Taylor, of Houston, said she is in West Palm Beach visiting family for Easter weekend and wanted to wish the president well.
“I just struck it at the right time that I was here when the president came in,” she said, holding an American flag. “It’s a wonderful experience for me.”
Trump stuck his head close to the window of his black SUV and waved to supporters as Secret Service drove him by. The cars were only a few feet from onlookers and Trump was easily visible.
“I feel privileged,” Taylor said of the sighting. “I’m going to go back and tell all my friends. I just feel happy that I had this experience and I wish everyone would have it.”
The motorcade arrived at the airport about 4 p.m., and Trump and Mrs. Trump climbed the stairs of Air Force One together, followed by Trump sons Donald Jr. and Eric and their families. The plane took off about 4:15 p.m.
Palm Beach Daily News staff writer Aleese Kopf contributed to this story.