The missions of poet and pastor are more similar than you might think, says Ryan Diaz ’15C, who these days performs both roles.
Raised in a charismatic, nondenominational tradition, he became a pastor in 2021, around the time his first book of poems was published. He has since written another book, each exploring spiritual themes he examined while an undergraduate History major at St. John’s University.
Pastor Diaz sees plenty of common ground in his two disciplines. “Poetry is a good mirror to our internal selves,” he said. “It’s an art form of subtext; it’s not the words that matter, but the feelings they evoke. It’s about depth. In the same way, pastoral work holds a mirror to us all and shows us the depth of who we are and what we’ve experienced. As a pastor, I try to help people get beyond the surface of their lives and point them to the root of their lives—which is God.”
Raised in Queens, NY, as the grandson of Puerto Rican immigrants, Pastor Diaz was always inspired by literature. Among his favorite poets is the great American modernist T.S. Eliot, whose poem “The Waste Land” explores themes of spiritual drought in the post-World War I United States. Studying the poem at St. John’s, Pastor Diaz came away determined to use his literary gifts to bring readers closer to God.
For Those Wandering Along the Way, published in September 2021, reflects on the divine as it appears in everyday life. Skipping Stones, published in July 2022, considers the nature of prayer and Pastor Diaz’s quest for grace.
Pastor Diaz, who attended high school at Evangel Christian School in Long Island City, Queens, and his wife live in Ridgewood, Queens, not far from his church, the nondenominational Oaks Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The church offers youth ministries, grief counseling, adult prayer groups, and a robust series of community events built around scripture reflection. Outreach programs include suicide prevention, 12-step programs for addiction recovery, volunteer work with the nonprofit North Brooklyn Angels mobile soup kitchen, and more.
As a student, Pastor Diaz was attracted to the intimacy of St. John’s personalized classroom environment. Associate Professor Dr. Tracey-Anne Cooper’s history classes were particularly inspiring. Pastor Diaz took several of Dr. Cooper’s classes, including a large-scale research project. “Those classes were so engaging,” Pastor Diaz recalled, “and so formative.”
Little did he know how well those classes would prepare him for the empathetic dialogue required of a pastor.
“The intimacy of the classroom sizes and the exchanges that allows is hard to match,” Pastor Diaz said. “I learned how important listening is, and that’s 95% of the job of a pastor.”
“During my life at St. John’s and elsewhere, I’ve seen how faith can work for people,” Pastor Diaz continued. “The ability to help people answer the life questions they have is inspiring to me.”
He answers some of those questions from the pulpit. Others Pastor Diaz answers in poems that explore the transcendent nature of God, joy and sorrow in the world, and experiencing the divine amid the seemingly mundane.
In the title poem of his initial book, Pastor Diaz reminds readers that a closer relationship with God is a lifelong journey and not a mere commuter trip. He learned that while serving as a member of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at St. John’s.
Take up now thy holy words,Hum with me this sacred dirge,Hold it deep within your soul,For when you don’t know what to sayThese are the songs we sing on the way.
Pastor Diaz’s Brooklyn, NY, congregation is small but enthusiastic. He calls Wednesdays his “six-coffee” day, as parishioners tend to stop by for refreshments and an opportunity to pray and chat.
That work continues while he awaits publication of his first novel, a fictionalized account of his relationship with his grandfather, which Pastor Diaz calls an examination of the subtle impact loved ones have on our lives. His grandparents, he said, were among the first to establish the faith-first philosophy he carries through life.
“I grew up believing there was something undergirding my life—and that was faith,” Pastor Diaz said. “I saw that religion at its best is active and alive and not just a series of mental exercises.”
Faith and service brought him to St. John’s, where he embraced elements of the core curriculum, including theology and philosophy, that serve him well now. “Growing up as a Christian, I really appreciated the integration of those classes into the curriculum,” he said. “I was really excited to learn about comparative religions in a place where it is valued.”