by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ray Diaz believes in community; it is his lifeline.
He wakes up every morning with the intention to reach out to anyone God places in front of him.
His resolve to help others comes from his experience as a resident of Shalom House — a men’s shelter in Wyandotte County — and the long journey that brought him there.
A journey that started in a very lonely place.
On the brink of death
In 2011, Diaz was destitute, estranged from his family and living in a broken-down truck.
“I was sitting in this old truck because that’s the only place I had to stay,” he recalled. “I was sweating profusely, I was shaky and my right arm was hurting me bad.
“I tried to get up, but couldn’t, and I couldn’t get my breath. I felt like a cinder block was hanging in my chest, and I had a feeling like electricity shooting across me.”
For four long days, Diaz lay in that truck, struggling through a fog of semiconsciousness.
“I would come to and I’d pass out,” he said. “I’d hear my phone ring and I’d try to answer it, and then I’d just hang up.
“My brain wasn’t working.”
Diaz had come to the end of the line. He knew he was dying, and he didn’t care.
“I was tired and I wanted to give up,” he said.
But from somewhere in the back of his memory surfaced a Bible passage he’d once read.
“In the 20th chapter of [the Second Book of] Kings,” he said, “I had read that Scripture where Hezekiah was sick, he was dying, he wasn’t going to make it.
“Hezekiah put all his cards on the table and cried and said, ‘God please give me some more time.’
“I don’t know why, but I said that prayer.”
The next day, Diaz was able to get out of the truck and make his way to a bus stop.
“I was gray and powdery,” he recalled, “and people were all looking at me like I was a zombie.
“I got on a bus and they dropped me off right in front of the hospital.”
The emergency-room personnel were shocked when they examined him.
“The doctor would write something down,” said Diaz. “Then, he’d turn around and look at me, shake his head and say, ‘I don’t understand how you’re sitting here talking to me.’”
Tests determined Diaz had suffered a massive heart attack. An attempt at a heart stent procedure was unsuccessful.
“I was 100 percent blocked,” he said. “There was no way they could fix it.
“The doctor told me I wasn’t going to make it.
“He said, ‘You may have six months to live.’”
That was four years ago.
“God gave Hezekiah another 15 years,” said Diaz, “because there were still things he needed to do for God.
“That’s just like me right now.”
The path to homelessness
“People don’t become homeless overnight,” said Shalom House case manager Tom Reynolds, with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. “It’s a process.”
Diaz’s story illustrates that fact.
Originally from Manhattan, Diaz married his high-school sweetheart and moved to Texas where he worked for many years as a home-building subcontractor, machinist and welder.
Though he provided a home for his wife and six children, Diaz was not able to manage his own life.
“I was making good money,” he said, “but not being responsible with it.”
Eventually, his marriage fell apart and his wife and children moved back to Kansas.
Diaz followed, but had to return to Texas for work. There, without the structure of a family, his lifestyle became unhealthy and unstable.
At his lowest point, he ended up incarcerated.
While Diaz was in prison in Texas, his wife was suffering from cancer, a secret she kept from her family.
She died suddenly in 2006.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t come to the funeral because I was locked up,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me out to come.”
As a result, Diaz became estranged from his children. He continued to live in Texas, but struggled unsuccessfully to get his life back on track.
“I was working for a guy remodeling stores,” he said. “But he left me dry — didn’t pay me.
“I was staying with a friend at the time, and I wasn’t on their lease. So the landlord kicked me out.
“I’d just given the last of my money to pay the rent — basically, I became homeless right there.”
And so Diaz ended up living in a broken-down truck, with nobody but God to turn to.
A prayer heard
“I’ve learned when man and society have given up on you,” said Diaz, “that’s when God steps in.”
After his heart attack and grim diagnosis, Diaz knew the only thing he wanted was to be reunited with his family.
“I prayed,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not the greatest person in the world. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, I’ve hurt a lot of people and I’ve hurt myself.’
“‘But I’d like to see my kids one more time.’”
God must have been paying attention.
Once Diaz was released from the hospital, friends in Texas took it upon themselves to contact his daughter in Olathe — and Diaz found his tragedy transformed.
“That heart attack and everything, it brought everyone together,” said Diaz. “They’d already lost Mom, they didn’t want to lose Dad.”
His daughter took him into her home, but a subsequent stroke landed him in the emergency room once again.
This time, doctors recommended open-heart surgery.
“They said it would save my life,” said Diaz. “I had the surgery — I went in with the attitude: ‘God’s got this.’
“A day or two later, I was sitting in a chair. I was determined to get better.”
After that successful surgery, Diaz convalesced at his daughter’s home and spent time rebuilding his relationship with his six children and 21 grandchildren.
But not wanting to be a burden to his family, he immediately began looking for a place where he could regain his independence.
“My daughter called around and found Shalom House,” he said.
A new beginning
Shalom House is a men’s shelter in Kansas City, Kansas, and is a ministry of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
And although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, it’s a special kind of place.
“The philosophy there, the way the guys are treated, the support from the parishes — all of that makes Shalom House unique,” said Reynolds.
The house has 26 beds downstairs and a transitional-living section upstairs with room for four men.
Men are provided meals, shelter and help getting their lives back on track so they can live independently.
“And we will work with persons as long as they’re working in good faith to make a transition,” said Reynolds. “Everybody is different, and we try to be both consistent and flexible within the guidelines of the program.”
Diaz began his transition at Shalom house learning lessons in humility.
“I had to drop my pride and let people help me,” he said. “I was weak. It was an experience — there was a reason I was supposed to be there.”
As Diaz became stronger, he found the difficulties he’d experienced gave him a special compassion for others.
“I learned a lot from other people,” he said. “I saw a lot of pain, and I was able to find something in myself that helped me be more compassionate.
“That’s something God pulled out of me.
“Through the months, as I progressively got better, I took up the role of kind of leader of the house, helping other men.”
“The men looked up to him,” confirmed Reynolds. “They respected him. He was a very calming, supportive influence.
“He was honest and had a commitment to try to make [the] Shalom House community better.”
A few months after moving to Shalom, Diaz had another serious health scare: a bout with thyroid cancer. But that didn’t slow him down.
While undergoing another surgery and radiation treatments, Diaz continued to mentor other men and work on his own transition.
His treatments completed and successful, Diaz was subsequently approved for disability in December 2014.
Two months later, he signed a lease on his own apartment.
“I stayed at Shalom for as long as I felt the Lord needed me there,” he said. “But I was ready for some space of my own.”
A space of his own
With his Shalom House friends serving as his moving crew, Diaz moved into his apartment.
He bought a television and some decorative accents, but most of his furnishings came from Catholic Charities donations.
“They were great about helping me,” he said.
For Diaz, the transition has been bittersweet.
“I’ve missed the guys,” he said. “I miss the routine: getting up at five, making coffee, getting the guys up.”
“He had a tremendously calming influence at Shalom House,” said Reynolds. “We saw proof of that after he left — it’s like there was a major vacuum.”
But in his new environment, Diaz has found that God is still giving him opportunities to serve others with the compassion he gained through his own suffering.
“I have a friend next door who has pancreatic cancer,” he said. “It’s terminal.
“My experience having a heart attack and having cancer has inspired me to help my neighbor.
“Talking to him and everything, he’s come closer to the Lord.”
Diaz looks forward to a future of using his past to help others — and he has a central message he wants to spread.
“Man may give up on you,” he said. “Family may give up on you. You may even give up on yourself.
“But that’s when God is just getting started.”
“I feel that strongly; I know it’s true,” Diaz added. “I’ve lived it.
“And God’s just getting started with me.”