The Miami Herald
January 26, 2000
Mediating churchman used to controversy


 Adversity has always dogged the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar -- from his
 earliest years as the son of a General Electric assembly line worker who
 never owned a car through his tenure as a much-maligned Democratic
 congressman from a GOP stronghold in Pennsylvania.

 Better known as ''Bob,'' Edgar is the general secretary of the troubled U.S.
 National Council of Churches -- and now, one of the most controversial
 figures in the Elian Gonzalez custody clash.

 But the Elian affair is a simple matter to Edgar, a bespectacled man of principle
 who has been a United Methodist minister since he was 19 years old. The boy
 belongs with his father, he believes ardently.

 And he will do whatever it takes to return Elian to his toys, his parrot and his
 classmates in Cuba. He laughs when he hears lawyers for Elian's Miami relatives
 and others say he made a pact with the devil: Fidel Castro. Edgar said on
 Tuesday he has never even met the man.

 ''I'm not denying there has been the involvement of our government and [the
 Cuban] government,'' Edgar said, asked about criticism that he is no more than
 an errand boy for Cuba's communist leaders.

 Edgar, who was director of the Committee for National Security, an arms control
 group, from 1988 to 1990, sees in the turmoil surrounding Elian's fate the
 possibility of positive things.

 ''As long as we keep Fidel as the evil enemy,'' he says, ''beautiful people in Cuba
 like these grandmothers are going to be victimized by politics.''

 Edgar says he believes that if America can reestablish diplomatic relations with
 Hanoi after the long and bitter Vietnam War, and if Washington can grant Beijing
 most-favored nation status even after the massacre at Tienanmen Square, it can
 normalize ties with Cuba.

 What keeps that from happening, he says, is diehard ''hatred'' among Miami's
 Cuban-American community, money and politics. And plenty of political money is
 raised in Miami, he added.

 ''Money talks,'' he said. ''Democrats and Republicans -- they all rely on this
 money. How many presidential candidates have you heard discuss the issue of
 Elian who are brave enough to say, 'Send him home.' ''

 Edgar, who was a congressman from 1978 to 1986, found a niche as a lawmaker,
 perfect for a man open to alternative ways of thinking: he was chair of the
 Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, a bipartisan effort to encourage
 lawmakers to think.

 Anthropologist Margaret Mead and other intellectual powerhouses delivered
 lectures and fed ideas.

 As one of 12 members of the Select Committee on Assassinations, he
 investigated the death of his personal hero, Dr. Martin Luther King. Edgar met
 King five weeks before the civil rights leader was killed in Memphis.

 ''Martin Luther King had a great personal impact in terms of his vision,'' he said.
 He said he was especially influenced by King's book, Where Do We Go From
 Here: Chaos and Community.

 The select committee also looked at the assassination of John F. Kennedy and
 the possible involvement of Castro.

 Since 1990, Edgar has been president of the Claremont School of Theology near
 Los Angeles. The school was plagued by embezzlement, poor morale and
 plunging endowment when he took the job against the advice of colleagues.

 It was the kind of mountain Edgar likes to climb. He quintupled the endowment to
 $22 million, increased minority involvement to 40 percent, and made Claremont
 the premier United Methodist seminary. He also threw open the campus to a wide
 array of other denominations and founded the Center for Sexuality in Christian
 Life, a high-risk venture that drew criticism.

 Edgar, who is married and is a grandfather, is resigning the Claremont presidency
 to devote himself full time to the National Council of Churches. He was elected
 NCC general secretary in November 1999.

 He relishes the task as NCC leader. It is part of his life mission of comforting the
 needy and rooting out injustices.

 Already, he said, there have been special moments.

 ''Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to my hotel room [in Havana] the week we chartered
 the plane that brought the grandmothers from Cuba to New York, and he told me,
 'I trust you.' He said, 'I place in your hands my mother, and my mother-in-law.
 Help us please,' '' Edgar said. ''This is what I am doing.''

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald