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'Survivor' seed money grows a fellowship hall

TV show prize inspires California congregation to build.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Sonja Christopher

Survivor contestant Sonja Christopher breaks ground for a building her prize money helped fund. (Les Polgar)

Sonja Christopher didn’t last very long on the first Survivor TV series in 2000, being the first person to be booted off the island. But she’s been a much more durable presence in the life of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Last Sunday, when the congregation broke ground for a $1.8 million fellowship hall, Christopher got part of the credit for bringing the project to fruition.

After returning home in 2000 from Survivor, which was filmed on an island off Borneo, Malaysia, she gave a summer service about her experience. In it she declared she would sink all of her winnings from Survivor into bricks and mortar for her church. It might have been more dramatic if she’d won the top prize of one million dollars rather than the $2,500 consolation prize for being the first person to be forced off the show that season.

But still, when she announced she’d donate the $2,500 as seed money for a building fund for the church’s long hoped for fellowship hall project, it inspired others. “People came up to me after the service and said they wanted to match what I was putting in,” said Christopher. “And we started to realize we could build this thing.”

It didn’t happen right away, but by the spring of 2007 the church had raised $1.3 million in a capital campaign for the fellowship hall. The remaining funds will be borrowed from a local bank.

Christopher, 71, has been a member of the church since 1965 and a Unitarian since she was a teen. Why did she apply for Survivor in the first place? “I had seen a movie about the Swiss Family Robinson (a family shipwrecked on an island) when I was a little girl and I wanted that kind of an experience. I had also been shaped by the values of my father who was a fan of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. It wasn’t until the third or fourth episode of Survivor that I realized: Wow, this is really mean-spirited.” Still, she wouldn’t trade her experience for anything.

In a way, she said, she’s glad she didn’t have a million dollars to contribute to the building fund: “It’s better this way. Now hundreds of people have had a chance to be a part of it. Now it’s going to be our fellowship hall, not just a gift laid at our feet.”

At the worship service on Sunday Christopher told the children’s story. “I told them I didn’t stay on Survivor long enough to eat bugs, which was one of the challenges. But I told them I’d gladly eat bugs for this church if it would get the fellowship hall built. And then I pretended to eat a big ‘ol Borneo fly. I must say, there were a lot of wide-eyed youngsters in church that day.”

Sue Polgar, a former president of the congregation, and co-chair of the Fellowship Hall Task Force, said the congregation dedicated a new sanctuary in 2000, but could not build a fellowship hall too. But the dream stayed alive and a 2003 long-range study chaired by Polgar showed the congregation was ready to act. It took two capital campaigns ($1 million raised in 2005 and another $300 thousand added in 2007). ”We had huge support from the congregation. At least 70 percent of the membership contributed. People put in an incredible number of hours planning this.” She credits Christopher with “keeping the spark alive” for the building.

The building will be named for a Mt. Diablo founder, the late David Bortin, and his wife Beverly, who has edited the church newsletter for more than 40 years. Both are former presidents.

Completion is scheduled for August. This year the congregation is also in search of a minister and there were concerns, said Polgar, that there wouldn’t be enough energy for everything. “That hasn’t happened,” she said. “The energy has grown to fill the needs.”

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