by Bob Hart
Special to The Leaven
EMPORIA — It’s not the plot of a new buddy/cop show, but the networks might want to take notice just the same. All the standard ingredients are present, along with a novel twist.
Kenneth Rodriguez would play the happily married veteran police officer, a devout Catholic with four grown children who’ve left the nest. Along comes younger officer Jaffar Agha, raised Muslim but now an atheist and prone to playfully teasing his sometime partner about his religious beliefs.
The remarkable story of reclaimed faith takes place in Emporia — not a likely locale for any possible TV incarnations but, as it turns out, the best place for Agha to be.
Agha, 31, raised Muslim in Kansas City, had long since denounced religion before becoming an Emporia police officer seven years ago. He was, he said, “probably trying to convince myself [of my atheism] more than others.”
He married his wife Carlie, “a lapsed Catholic,” six years ago and had three children — Gregory, 4; Amelia, nearly 3; and Elizabeth, who’ll have her first birthday in June.
Along the way, he crossed paths and eventually became friends with Rodriguez, an Emporia native who belongs to Sacred Heart Parish.
“He used to tease me a lot,” Rodriguez recalled. “It was never disrespectful — just a lot of playful banter about my faith. I just tried to be a friend and defend the faith as best I could. After a while, I decided to just pray for him and leave it in God’s hands.”
What Rodriguez didn’t know was that his younger friend was on a serious spiritual quest — reaching out to several of his fellow officers and sampling their Christian religious services in what he called a “try-before-you-buy” sort of experiment.
Eventually, Agha tried Sacred Heart. To his surprise, he found comforting similarities to his original religious upbringing.
“[Catholicism] is very traditional, and there’s a solemn atmosphere at Mass,” he said. “I like that things are spelled out in the Catechism [of the Catholic Church], and I believe that if it’s truly God’s word, it’s not for us to change.”
For a long time after that visit,” he said, “I was definitely feeling that I believed in Christ, but not acting on it.”
But more than one near-death experience in the line of duty — particularly a foot chase in which he was knocked unconscious — led him to seek a deeper commitment. He again turned to Rodriguez, whom Agha described as “an outspoken Catholic, a great witness and a very humble person.”
Rodriguez helped lead him to Sacred Heart’s RCIA program under the leadership of coordinator Shawn Gerleman and pastor Father Brandon Farrar. One of the priest’s suggestions was that Jaffar and Carlie Agha take part in a couples’ retreat, primarily designed for the engaged.
“[My wife] was happy to go, and to start coming back to Mass with me and the children,” Agha said. “It’s kind of a new beginning for the whole family.”
That new beginning was at Easter, when Agha and all three children were baptized in the Catholic faith, and Jaffar and Carlie’s marriage was blessed.
Of course, with baptisms, the roles of godparents must be cast.
Officer Agha’s godfather was none other than his colleague Officer Rodriguez. A fellow Emporia police officer, Damian Podrebarac, was godfather to Gregory, Amelia and Elizabeth.
“I love to give props to Shawn Gerleman and a very well-organized and inclusive RCIA program,” said Agha. “And to all of Sacred Heart — they really opened up their hearts to me.”
For his part, Rodriguez downplayed his role in Agha’s journey, saying he never saw himself as a mentor. Instead, he said, “I just tried to be the best example I know how to be.”
If the networks are listening, it sounds like the makings of a long-running hit.