WASHINGTON (AP)--As Cuban exiles and their former countrymen loudly demonstrated over the fate of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, one of those in the middle, standing with the boy, was the Rev. Robert Edgar.

This was the same Robert Edgar who, as a congressman and seminary president, built a reputation for overcoming odds and turning troubles around.

Those skills will be helpful as he starts perhaps his toughest challenge, as general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ. The organization has received much attention for its efforts to get Elian returned to Cuba, but its financial troubles have also made news.

``It is ready to rethink itself and its mission,'' Edgar said of the council, the nation's largest ecumenical Protestant organization. The 50-year-old, New York-based group has seen a decline in membership and political clout and ended last year with a $3.2 million deficit.

Its power has declined along with that of its members, 35 ``Mainline Protestant'' and Orthodox denominations. The rise of more conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches, who are at odds with the council's theological and political views, has made the council's job harder.

Edgar, a 56-year-old Methodist minister, said he has had many experiences of ``baptism by fire'' and has no illusions about the task ahead.

For the past 10 years, he has been president of the Claremont Graduate School Of Theology in California. During that tenure, which started at a time when the school had trouble meeting its payroll, the endowment grew from $3.8 million to $21 million.

When he was elected to Congress in 1974 from suburban Philadelphia, he won in district that had not elected a Democrat in more than 100 years. He held the seat for 12 years before making an unsuccessful run for the Senate against incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

In Congress, Edgar developed a reputation for defying the wishes of the political establishment, especially on issues like the environment and veterans benefits.

The Almanac Of American Politics, a Washington reference book, noted that Edgar had ``ruffled his elders in every conceivable way'' and that there is a ``marvelous touch of naivete to his career.''

But former Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, who worked closely with Edgar, described him as a ``stabilizing force in Congress.'' She recalled that he was principled but not offensively so.

``He was not confrontational or abrasive, just a decent, strong-minded and thoughtful person,'' she added.

Edgar, who has been preaching since college, said his political career would be helpful at the council, which is often better known for its liberal political views than for its religious work. (For years, the council has campaigned against America's hardline policy and trade embargo against Cuba, for example.)

Edgar cited the council's work fighting hunger, supporting women's rights and reproductive choice, and improving racial relations as among its most important activities. The council's religious work includes publishing the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Edgar said despite the difficulties caused by having a diverse membership, he would not want to trade places with religions that speak with a more unified theological voice.

``I don't lust after what the Catholics and evangelicals are able to do,'' he said. ``We are a collection of faith communities and we must concentrate on our oneness and celebrate our diversity.''

Pondering important theological and political questions is a long way from his original life's goal, which was to coach high school football and wrestling.

He changed his mind when he attended a church camp during high school and found out ``that ministers didn't have to be boring, and faith could be exciting.''

Edgar worked as a guest minister while doing his undergraduate work at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and while at divinity school at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

He worked at several congregations throughout Pennsylvania and at Drexel University in Philadelphia before running for Congress.

Though he had never been involved in partisan politics, he often sought the convergence between his religious faith and his political activism. He met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. two weeks before King's assassination and studied the teachings of King and liberal Protestant thinkers such as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor-activist hanged because of his opposition to the Nazis.

``I am for the separation of church and state, not the separation of faithful people and government,'' Edgar said.

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