Popular Columbia cleric subject of roast tonight Politicians, activists choose Turner for brunt of jokes

January 18, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Robert A. F. Turner has been in Columbia only five years, but he has already made an indelible impression on the community.

As pastor of St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church, he has established a mentoring program, gotten involved in political campaigns and attracted so many new members to his congregation that he has begun a fund-raising campaign to build a new church in Ellicott City.

Though he usually gets accolades for such work, tonight it will make him the target of jokes.

Turner, 40, will be roasted by nine Howard County politicians and community activists at a fund-raiser at Turf Valley in Ellicott City. The $35-a-plate dinner is sponsored by the Howard County chapter of the National Political Congress of Black Women.

"The fact that they are willing to roast someone who hasn't been in the community that long shows that people have warmed up to him and know he is not defensive and has a great sense of humor," said Sandra Gray, a member of St. John's since 1976.

Known by many as the "hugging preacher," often replacing handshakes with hugs when greeting people, Turner has become something of an icon in the county for his work in religion, politics and race relations.

"He's a brilliant, energetic guy," said Democratic County Councilman C. Vernon Gray. "He has a warmness about his personality that really draws people from all over the community. He's really in demand."

Turner started a Sunday school class on Tuesday nights for low-income residents who live near the congregation's former home in Wilde Lake Village Center. Last fall, he lobbied for the election of sitting Judge Donna Hill Staton, Howard's first black Circuit Court judge, who lost her seat in November to District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman. The African American Coalition of Howard County -- which focuses on education and politics -- developed under his leadership.

"He's the kind of guy who just by his sheer demeanor carries the day," said Tim Sosinski, an officer of the Community Action Council. "When he walks in a room, he gets everybody's attention. He's the kind of person everybody wants to follow."

Turner can rarely be found sitting behind his desk in his temporary office off Route 108. He estimates that he spends at least 20 hours a week visiting sick congregation members, helping bring black-owned businesses to the county and encouraging young black students to excel in school.

Even when he loses -- as he did with Staton's election bid -- Turner is challenged to try again.

"How do I feel about her losing? Ambivalent," he says. "I don't want to say I don't like losing. I'd say I feel challenged."

Turner's biggest task: raising $3 million to build his new church -- a 27,000-square-foot building on 45 acres at U.S. 40 and Marriottsville Road. It will be completed in three to five years.

In October, Turner's congregation decided to leave the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, where they shared worship space with three other congregations. The interfaith centers were designed by Columbia's developer James W. Rouse to save money and promote religious understanding.

But with St. John's rapidly growing -- from 400 to 600 members during Turner's five years in the pulpit -- it was getting too difficult to compete for space at the center.

"He's a catalytic leader," Gray said of Turner and his ability to attract new members to his church. "He believes in empowering people and working with other people regardless of who they are or what community they live in."

Ethel B. Hill, chairwoman of the Howard County chapter of the National Congress of Black Women added: "Reverend Turner feels he has a commitment not just to the church, but that he owes it to the community at large. People from the white community find it unusual a minister involved in politics, but that's Reverend Turner. He's a person with a vision."

A native of Rhode Island, Turner is the son of a retired teacher and a Navy officer. Before coming to Columbia, Turner spent a decade at Western Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass.

Like Rouse, he said, he shares the vision to "emphasize diversity in the community."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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