Despite his long hair, Chuck Proudfoot denies his reputation as Payson’s hippie pastor.
“I get two haircuts a year,” Proudfoot said. It’s not because he’s a hippie, although his youth was peppered with non-violent civil rights and anti-war protests.
He knows that Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn” is a nearly verbatim biblical reference, and he also once worked in a Washington, D.C. psychiatric ward integrating spirituality into the psychiatric care of people who wanted to deliver then-President Jimmy Carter messages they had from God.
But the chin-length silver hair sprouting after Proudfoot’s 4-month-old haircut is not due to any hippieness.
“It’s because I’m Scotch. I’m too cheap to get a haircut,” joked Proudfoot, the 61-year-old pastor of Payson Community Presbyterian Church.
Proudfoot’s sense of humor perhaps deters him from engaging in the spirit of seriousness that can accompany devotion. His first wife married him because she said he wasn’t a typical minister.
Proudfoot is humble and thoughtful and willing to talk about his most fervently held beliefs.
On a February morning, Proudfoot wore a tie decorated with M & Ms, which complemented the yellow dispenser, full of the same peanut candies, on his desk.
“I make my office child-friendly,” said Proudfoot.
A wooden beam stretches a few feet below his office ceiling — a model train traverses the space. A clock on his wall makes train noises on the hour.
Then there is the obligatory pastor-humor.
“It’s a standing joke, God so loved the world that he did not send a committee.”
Everything in church life has a committee, Proudfoot said, and he serves on several — including non-church committees and organizations.
He’s the president of the Payson Christian Ministerial Fellowship, chair of the Main Street Merchants Guild, on the Green Valley Area Redevelopment Committee, and is a liaison from the redevelopment committee to the Historical Preservation and Conservation Commission.
Fridays, he takes off.
Proudfoot grew up in Pueblo, Colo. His father was an engineer, and his mother was ordainable in the Disciples of Christ.
Proudfoot stayed in Pueblo for college, studying Renaissance reformation and the history of Colorado, before two of the six seminaries nationwide accepted him — Princeton, New Jersey and San Francisco. While in college, Proudfoot had organized peaceful protests, mostly for racial equality, but also to oppose the Vietnam War.
“I thought that scripture was clear, one should not run around killing one’s neighbor,” Proudfoot said.
By 1970, the flower power movement’s epicenter in San Francisco was attracting like-minded people like bees who wanted a piece of pollen.
Proudfoot also wanted a piece. “I could either go where protest was really happening or I could live in a 130-year-old dorm.”
Proudfoot arrived in San Francisco only to find out the pollen was hallucinogenic and the peaceful protests often turned destructive.
“I found out that I was not as activist as I thought,” he said. Instead, he focused on his trains — “or the trains,” he corrected himself.
Proudfoot’s “the trains” versus “my trains” slip-up perhaps illuminates a key human struggle — fending off feelings of possession in a borrowed world.
“This isn’t my congregation. I serve this congregation,” he said. “It’s not my church. It never has been.”
Proudfoot nearly left the ministry before accepting his job in Payson six years ago. He was going to be a locomotive engineer. “My other passion is trains,” he said.
But the chance to keep serving in rural ministry, and continue his devotion to improving the world through community outreach arose — perhaps through design by the beyond.
“I don’t have a corner on God. I can tell you about God,” Proudfoot said.
During his Sunday sermons, it’s not Proudfoot discussing faith. “You realize that it’s not you talking. If it’s you talking, then you’ve missed the point.”
Still, tragedy often incites contemplation.
“I don’t think faith is worth having if you can’t wrestle with it,” said Proudfoot.
Nine years ago, Proudfoot’s first wife died of a rare neuromuscular disease. She crisscrossed from doctors to psychiatrists, members of each profession directing her to the other profession.
For years, while Laverne was sick, Proudfoot worked on a sermon called, “When the World Falls In, What Then?” He “stole” the title from a Scottish pastor whose wife died on a Saturday, and the pastor preached on Sunday.
“The point is that even in death, God is there,” Proudfoot said.
When Proudfoot moved to Payson to take the lead of Community Presbyterian Church, “I came here with my son as two confirmed bachelors.”
His next wife, Dawn, he met through the unlikely convergence of the church-run divorce recovery group.
Not all congregations accept divorce. “It is the death of a relationship and we don’t like to see relationships die, but relationships die,” Proudfoot said.
As Pete Seeger wrote, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die … A time to laugh, a time to weep.”
Ecclesiastes 3, Proudfoot said.
During the summer of 1978, centuries after Ecclesiastes hit the market, but just decades after Seeger set it to music, Proudfoot studied for a semester in the psychiatric ward of a Washington, D.C. hospital.
One of his assignments in the class was to diagnose prophets in the Bible with modern psychological ailments.
“Those are the folks who are able to hear and say to people this is what God wants,” Proudfoot said. Were Jesus alive today, he would likely be institutionalized, he added.
“Society decides what illness is.”
Proudfoot tussled with manics and psychotics of biblical proportions while at the psychiatric ward. People who arrived at the White House insisting they had a message for Carter from God were sent to Proudfoot.
Carter, battling unstoppable inflation, likely could have used a little guidance. Instead, Proudfoot integrated spiritual care into the patients’ psychiatric care.
“Spiritual care is a key component to health care. Period,” Proudfoot said. “The difference between someone who’s mentally ill and who’s visionary is the context of the vision.”
If a voice directs a person to kill, the voices are bad. But great, life-altering projects also begin with a vision. Proudfoot says that God is present in the good but absent in evil.
“God has to choose in some way to limit God’s self,” he said.
Humans likewise have freewill to make choices. Proudfoot tries to make the world a better place.
Through community outreach, the pastor lives that devotion.
“It’s not an accident that this is called Payson Community Presbyterian Church.”
Hippies don’t have a corner on wanting to improve humanity just as Proudfoot doesn’t have a corner on God. But every Sunday, you can hear him preach, every hour, the train choo-choos from the clock in his office, and every six months you can catch Payson’s non-hippie pastor with short hair.
Seeger’s borrowing of Ecclesiastes perhaps said it best. There is “a time for every purpose under heaven.”