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"He uplifts us with living'

Weekdays, he wears Bermuda shorts and sandals and walks the Central Park and Tampa Park housing projects. For years, he rode his bike, until he gave it to a guy who needed it more.

He serves the poor lunch every day.

Sundays call the Rev. Ed Lamp to the altar _ or to the aisles of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, where he stands so close to his congregation that some can hear him breathe.

It's 10:40 a.m. on one such Sunday at the church on Nebraska Avenue. Pews are packed with parents, teenagers, single people, nuns and a fidgety baby soothed to silence by a jostle on her mother's knee.

Lamp asks a man and a woman to stand up. A year ago, he joined them in matrimony.

A night ago, he had a dream about them.

"Go back to the time before you were married, when you still had the fire for each other," he tells them. "Is it better now? Is it the same fire or is it different?"

Different, yet in a good way.

"We've learned each other's ways," the man says.

Lamp uses the exchange to draw a comparison about the danger of boredom creeping into the lives of Christians, about the need to strive for love and respect.

But he could also be describing the maturing union between his church and the neighborhood it serves.

"He has done wonderful things _ tying the church to the community," says choir member Anita Peeves.

In May, the knots will be tested. Lamp will move to a new assignment, that of Catholic chaplain at the James A. Haley Veterans Medical Center near the University of South Florida. He prayed over the decision for four months. A replacement has not been named.

Leaving his struggling congregation, 90 percent black and made up of 300 families, won't be easy _ not for him or them.

His stay at St. Peter Claver, parishioner Wilma Warren says, has been "spirit-filled."

Sunday Mass lasts nearly two hours, twice the length of most Catholic services.

Hope and spontaneity fill the minutes.

Choir members take turns in front of the microphone, switching from church-selected music to a joyful and elongated "Amen."

On a whim, Lamp wonders aloud: Does anybody knows the words to I've got that Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart?

The answer rises like thunder from the blond wooden pews.

"He gives us such inspiration," says Warren, a church member for 26 years. "He uplifts us with living and loving for the week."

Lamp, who arrived at St. Peter Claver five years ago after working with migrants at a Ruskin church, is known both for his powerful preaching and empathy for those he leads.

Keenly, he feels the need to help the downtrodden.

"They are always suffering," he says, "always getting the last piece of the crumb."

He spends his waking hours among them.

He buys his newspaper at a neighborhood convenience store, sharing the early mornings with prostitutes and drug addicts and their honest neighbors.

At 59, he routinely sleeps six hours a night _ less if he is called to minister to the sick _ rising by 3:30 a.m. He power walks around his Tampa Heights neighborhood and then to a downtown YMCA, arriving before the doors open.

He gets to church most days by 6:15 a.m. On Mondays and Tuesdays, he says Mass for a lone parishioner, a woman, in his office. By 8 a.m. he is around the corner at St. Peter Claver School, playing running games and telling stories to the children.

He treasures their innocence and mourns its likely loss.

By lunchtime, he's on duty in the church soup kitchen.

"When I first arrived here, people said, "Don't you dare walk across the street or you'll get killed,' " he recalls.

"If you tell me not to do something, I'm going to do it. I need to get the feeling of a neighborhood, to know what's going on, what's happening to the people I know."

Like many of his parishioners, he grew up poor. The second of three children, he was raised in a two-bedroom, unheated flat in Jersey City, N.J.

His father brought home meager wages from a railroad job. Lamp remembers his mother telling a grocery owner that she would have to pay later. Still, they were a strong and happy family, lives brightened by the neighborhood Catholic church, by the nuns and priests who played basketball in the school yard and offered comfort in hard times.

When Lamp was 14, he surprised himself by telling a priest, "I want to be just like you."

He entered the seminary at 16, dropped out a few years later, enrolled in college and earned a bachelor's degree in nursing. He re-entered the seminary and went on to earn a master's degree and Ph.D. in church-related studies.

"I don't go into a new congregation with the idea of changing them, but rather, I go in with the idea of sharing the burden," he says.

He admits he prefers a poor congregation to a rich one. He would tell the rich they have a responsibility to share, but he tells the poor the same.

With his shaved head, laborer's build and profile straight from the side of a Roman coin, he doesn't look much like a priest.

He hasn't worn a collar, except to formal functions, in 20 years. He thinks the garb is appropriate on certain occasions _ a funeral, say, or if he were invited to the White House. The rest of the time, it just gets in the way.

"I want people to know me for who I am," he says, "not what I do."

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