MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER
For several days, Edgar Rodriguez and his wife asked one of their sons to clean his room. On one particular day, his son wanted to go to a sleepover, so they struck a deal that if his room was clean, he could go.
Time came to leave, and his room was still unkempt. His chance was gone, and he was devastated. Not long after, his twin sister entered her parents’ bedroom in tears.
“I just hate that he can’t go to his sleepover,” she said. “Would it be OK if I helped him clean so he could go to his sleepover?”
They couldn’t say no to such an empathetic request, Rodriguez said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 4, in the Amphitheater, Rodriguez presented his lecture, “Empathy: The Key for Human Survival,” part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”
Rodriguez is both a pastor of New Hope Evangelical Church and a police chief in the small, rural community of Moville, Iowa.
When he first became police chief, his first task was hiring a new officer and several reserve officers because the ones that were in the department were too by-the-book, he said.
“They didn’t really care about the impact they would make in any person’s life,” he said. “If a person committed a crime, the arrest would be made, no questions asked. If the person would want to try and offer an explanation, it was never — or seldom — heard. I decided to change that.”
One of the officers he hired had zero police or military experience — he was home-schooled and a musician at a church. But, like the other people hired, he cared about the community, Rodriguez said.
On Monday night, that officer called Rodriguez and told him he had taken funds from the church to assist a mother and son who didn’t have a place to stay, and he did so without first consulting with Rodriguez.
Rodriguez applauded him, and said that was exactly why he was hired.
Oftentimes, Rodriguez is asked about his dual careers. People wonder how he can be both a pastor and a police officer, which he thinks comes from the idea that police officers are unloving or uncaring.
“I’ve been trying to change the image of police officers since I began,” he said. “We are more than protectors from evil. We are peacemakers. We are compassionate men and women. We love to serve the public.”
To solve the world’s issue of a lack of empathy, people should look to their creator, he said.
“There are many stories and examples of God’s word that expresses, demonstrates and teaches empathy,” he said. “We are all born with it, but we have been desensitized from it.”
One of those stories is in Mark 1:40-42, the story of a man asking Jesus for a miracle. Jesus tells him to “be clean,” both performing a physical miracle and a mental one. The man had never felt such compassion before, Rodriguez said.
“Words of compassion can heal the injuries of a broken heart,” Rodriguez said. “Never underestimate the power of your words.”
Rodriguez, who grew up on the United States-Mexico border, remembers wishing he lived in a different family because of his father’s alcoholism.
His mother tried to get his father to go to church with them every Sunday and Wednesday, but he was powerless against alcohol, Rodriguez said. He didn’t understand why his mother stayed married to him.
“For a long time, I was angry at God for deciding to give my mother, brother and I the life we were experiencing,” he said. “It wasn’t until I grew older and began to give my life to God that I began to understand what my mother was doing. Her faith in God gave her wisdom and strength to give my father a love that I didn’t understand.”
Rodriguez said Romans 5:8 shows God’s love for humans, even though they are sinners — which is the same love Rodriguez’s mother demonstrated.
“I remember my father desperately trying to quit his alcohol addiction and stop hurting his family,” he said. “I remember the pain I felt, the worry I experienced, hoping my father would come home sober.”
His mother always told him she stayed because that was her choice of marriage. That love stuck with Rodriguez.
Later in life, Rodriguez visited Honduras on a mission trip. The country had just been battered by Hurricane Mitch, and he heard stories of family members washed away by mudslides and rivers. He expected this phenomenon to shake people’s faith.
It did the opposite, he said.
“God seemed to be their tower of strength to get through their pain,” he said.
In addition, Rodriguez realized he could empathize with their pain.
“I felt that same pit in my stomach when I saw my father intoxicated,” he said. “I felt the same pain as I saw my mother cry because my father’s chaos would drain all of my family emotionally. I felt that same worry when I expected my father to arrive home like a tornado. I noticed more and more how I would feel empathy when I witnessed someone else distressed.”
Rodriguez’s childhood feeling of pain is what propelled his ability to empathize as an adult, he said. He thinks everyone is capable of feeling it, but needs to address it head on.
When he came home from Honduras, he told his wife it was time to do more than simply go to church every week, and she had been feeling the same way.
Rodriguez completely started his life over, switching from an architecture major at the University of Georgia to a major in theology and pastoral ministries at Vennard College, a now-closed nondenominational Christian college in University Park, Iowa.
After graduating, they moved to Portland, Oregon, where Rodriguez first became a pastor. In 2010, the couple moved to Moville to save a dying church, he said.
“My message to the small church was a message of empathy,” he said. “I communicated to them that unless we engaged our community with love and compassion, they wouldn’t care if we existed. So, we began the journey to change from a self-indulgent church to a mission-minded church who would notice people’s needs in our community.”
After some time, he met a major of the sheriff’s office at a neighboring town’s city council meeting. Rodriguez was there asking if his church could do midweek services in the town’s park. The sheriff approached him afterward and said he was impressed with Rodriguez’s work.
That sheriff began attending church, and eventually asked Rodriguez to be a chaplain at the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office. He accepted, and was now meeting with deputies, jailers and inmates at the county jail.
“They would lock me in a little five-by-five concrete room with no windows and one entrance and one exit,” he said. “I would sit in front, across a little table, from (anyone from) petty thieves to murderers. I sat in front of gang members, domestic abusers, child abusers, and many more types of criminals.”
Their one commonality: Each took a wrong turn in life, he said. Most came from abusive homes, foster care or broken homes.
“Most of them thought the path they chose was not one that they would ever choose, but it was what they felt was handed to them,” he said. “It was all they knew.”
Rodriguez saw his own life in many of theirs.
“I could see my father,” he said. “I could see my mother struggling to keep us together. I could identify myself with them. … I could have chosen drugs. I could have chosen alcohol or gangs. But the love of my mother — and other people who would show up in my life with encouraging words from time to time — kept me safe and present.”
The love and hope his mother had, and that he said he received from Jesus, allowed Rodriguez to pass on hope to inmates. He could help them think beyond their current state.
“I became their champion,” he said. “Sometimes, I believed in them more than they believed in themselves.”
Rodriguez believed in them because he believed in his father to overcome his battle against alcohol — which he eventually did, giving in to Rodriguez’s mother’s church invitations.
“He made a conscious decision to believe in God for the first time, and the power of God was with him,” Rodriguez said.
The jail could hardly keep Bibles on the shelf, and the sheriff asked Rodriguez if he would become a reserve deputy. Rodriguez accepted, and he soon realized after starting his service that he would encounter people he’d never meet at church.
Moville eventually needed a new police officer, and the mayor and then-police chief asked Rodriguez to join.
“They told me the compassion I had for people was exactly what they wanted in the department,” he said. “So, it hit me that if I really wanted to help the broken and hurting, I needed to get involved and have a position that would make a difference in people’s lives.”
He did make a difference as a pastor, but as a police officer he got to help people actively losing control, he said.
“In essence, it put me with my father again,” he said. “Every time I encounter someone who made a bad choice, I see my father — and I feel a love for them that is unexplainable. I can see them past their present circumstance and exterior facade and see the person that never thought they would be in this predicament.”
On his first weekend on duty in Moville, Rodriguez was sent to pick up a woman with a warrant out for her arrest. It was a petty crime, and she just hadn’t gone to court, he said. When he arrived at her house, he didn’t want to arrest her.
He saw, through the woman, his mother standing at the door. Rodriguez told her he would treat her with respect, asked if she needed to grab anything, and said that he would drive her to the jail but not handcuff her.
On the half-hour drive to Sioux City, Rodriguez encouraged her, told her he would pray for her and would be there if she needed him for anything. It came up that he was a minister, and the woman attended his church that next Sunday.
“She’s been walking into our church ever since,” he said. “She’s told me as many times as she can that I changed her life.”
In another story, from this year’s July 4, Rodriguez stopped a car that had a broken headlight. He expected to just give them a warning because most people don’t realize when a light goes out.
But, the driver didn’t want to follow orders. He got out of the vehicle and refused to get back inside. He told Rodriguez it wasn’t his car, that he was borrowing it, so Rodriguez had to check his ID. In the radio in his ear, dispatch asked if his radio was secured.
“When they say that, it’s not good,” Rodriguez said.
The man had three warrants to his name — he was a dangerous gang member from Los Angeles. Three other deputies were on the way, but as usual in a rural community, they were all about a half-hour away.
“OK, well, hurry up,” he said.
The man became more and more jittery, and Rodriguez tried grabbing his wrist to handcuff him. Rodriguez lost grip, and the man took off running, prompting a chase.
Rodriguez caught up, wrestled with the man and took out his taser gun. Before he could shoot, the man relented, and Rodriguez got him in handcuffs and to the back seat of his car.
“Then, I decided I needed to notice this individual,” he said. “There had to be more to the story.”
On the way to Sioux City, Rodriguez said he would help with the three warrants as much as possible, but the man had to be truthful with him. He asked him about his life and how he got here, which was similar to the other inmates Rodriguez met.
Rodriguez asked if he believed in a higher power, and the man said he used to but his prayers were never answered.
“God isn’t a genie,” Rodriguez told him. “God is someone who wants to have a relationship.”
The man cried and prayed with Rodriguez and asked God back into his life, he said, and on a bridge near the jail, fireworks began going off.
“Of course, after I told him that after you pray you’re not going to see a big bang, all of a sudden ‘bang, bang, bang,’ ” Rodriguez said.
They arrived at the county jail, and the man was able to pay off the petty warrant he had in Woodbury County. One warrant was in Los Angeles and the other was in a second Iowa County. The jail tried calling the other county, but it wouldn’t answer.
That never happened, Rodriguez said.
After several attempts and waiting for a call back, they had no choice but to release the man and wait for the other county to follow up.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You did it!’ ” Rodriguez said.
The jail workers knew exactly what he was talking about. They’d seen it before with Rodriguez.
To close his lecture, Rodriguez asked the audience a question.
“Is there anything you wouldn’t do to help you?” he said.
Empathy is the embodiment of what one would do for themselves, but instead for others, he said.
“Empathy is the way to people’s hearts,” he said. “It makes you see past their exterior and sometimes their tough cover. Empathy is noticing and understanding what a person is going through and then sharing their feelings.”