When he was a small boy, Robert A. F. Turner's parents never suspected he'd be the one in the family to become a minister.
"My mother and father were surprised because they used to read Bible stories to us every night," he said. "They said out of their three children, I paid the least attention."
Today, the Pensacola, Fla., native is to be installed as the pastor for St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church, a 600-member
congregation that meets in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.
His mother, sister and the ministers who helped groom him will be among 300 guests expected to attend the 4 p.m. ceremony.
Mr. Turner, 35, was selected from a national pool of 75 candidates to lead the 22-year-old congregation.
He received a bachelor's degree in political science from Boston University, a master's in divinity from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, and a doctorate of ministry from New York Theological Seminary.
He came here in May from Cambridge, Mass., where for 11 years he was minister at Western Avenue Baptist Church.
"I was getting this sense that I had done everything God wanted me to do there," he said.
He will fill a vacancy at St. John the Evangelist left by the retirement of the Rev. Herbert Eaton two years ago.
Though accustomed to having a congregation meet in its own building, he welcomes the chance to meet in an ecumenical environment.
The Columbia congregation is the latest stage in a lifetime of religious devotion for Mr. Turner.
At 11, he knew he wanted to serve Christ. He announced his plans to his schoolteacher mother and father in the U.S. Navy, and the family's minister.
"I knew I wanted to be [a minister], but I didn't know how," he said.
While growing up in Providence, R.I., he met the Rev. Cornelius B. Williams at Olney Street Baptist Church. Williams took him under his wing and let him preach his first sermon at age 18.
At Boston University he was considering law school. But the summer before his senior year, he thought God wanted him to attend a seminary.
Confused, he asked Mr. Williams for advice.
"I said, 'Bobby, . . . if God wants you to be a minister, you'll tell me, you won't have to ask me," said Mr. Williams, now pastor at 6th Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pittsburgh.
When Mr. Williams moved to Pennsylvania in 1979, Mr. Turner attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Providence, the state's largest black Baptist church. He met the Rev. C. Dexter Wise III, who became his mentor and ordained him three years later.
Mr. Turner said he hopes to emulate both of his mentors at his new church home in Columbia. He said being a minister is a little like coaching.
"You're helping people to develop their potential for Jesus Christ."