The gentle ‘sole’ behind the PC(USA)’s Gracie

Educator and pastor Kathy Dawson has breathed life into the gills of the One Great Hour of Sharing fish since 2007

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dawson poses during last month’s APCE Annual Event with Gracie and the new book, “Gracie’s Journey.” (Photo by Margaret Boone)

ST. LOUIS — It’s no fish tale.

When the Rev. Dr. Kathy Dawson was first invited nearly 20 years ago to write a new curriculum around a “little fish” designed to interpret the One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) Offering to children, she found herself hooked.

Although the ecumenical One Great Hour of Sharing Offering had been calling Presbyterians and other Christians since 1949 to share God’s love with their neighbors in need, nothing had yet been created to specifically help children to engage with the Offering until Dawson tested the waters.

And, once she joined the project in 2007, the celebrated Christian educator fell for the challenge hook, line and sinker.

But when Dawson discovered that the new mascot — which was intended to complement the Offering’s beloved fish coin boxes — was originally hatched in 2006 without a name or much of a back story, she immediately dove into the kind of meticulous research for which she is well known.

“When you read through the first story, you didn’t know whether it was a boy fish or a girl fish,” said Dawson, the Benton Family Associate Professor of Christian Education and project director for the Wonder of Worship grant project through Lilly Endowment at Columbia Theological Seminary. “You didn’t know where the fish was located or even what pronouns to use.”

Then, to address at least that aspect of the little fish’s identity, the PC(USA)’s Office of Special Offerings held a naming contest that drew more than 1,200 entries. The winning name, which was submitted by Second Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, N.J., was “Gracie.”

Yet named or not, Gracie’s anonymity persisted.

“When I first signed on as the writer, we had lots of phone calls about where the fish would live and what time period it would be in,” Dawson recalled. “One thought was that Gracie would live in the Sea of Galilee and talk to Jesus, but if you look at all the fish stories in the Bible, that would have been a very short series, as most of the stories are about eating fish! Besides, I preferred that she not be a freshwater fish, but that she instead live in some place accessible to other parts of the world.”

Because Dawson soon began to envision her charge swimming amidst colorful coral reefs, she ultimately chose the Red Sea as Gracie’s home.

But what was clear from the beginning was that Gracie had also found a home in Dawson’s heart.

As readers of the curriculum well know — and as Gracie’s many adventures through the years attest — the little fish doesn’t see herself as a leader, a theme which resonates deeply with Dawson.

“Gracie has a hard time seeing the gifts in herself that the others see in her,” she said. “I think part of that is my adoptive sister, Carolyn [Fritsch] told me that I was Gracie.”

In a candid moment during a Jan. 25 interview at the Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE) annual event, Dawson shared that after her parents died when she was quite young, adoptive siblings, including Fritsch, now a retired pastor in California, stepped up to make her their family.

“Gracie has gotten better at acknowledging her own gifts over the years, and perhaps I have, too,” said Dawson, who was named APCE’s Educator of the Year in 2015. “It’s easy for me to write her character.”

Dawson said that the other fish who have surrounded Gracie from the beginning — friends like Angie Angelfish, Benji and Belinda Butterfly Fish, Ephraim Eel and Gus Grouper, among others — have developed their personalities as well.

But even as the characters evolve, Dawson is insistent that they remain fish, even when they are helping children to understand the many complex issues associated with the three programs supported by OGHS: the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

“The hardest year for me was when we had to spotlight SDOP,” said Dawson. “Although it’s easy to write about hunger or natural disasters, I had to really search through examples of projects that have been awarded SDOP grants, looking to find something that fish could actually do. Even though they are talking fish, I still try to keep them doing fish things. And to be scientifically correct, I always do additional research at the Georgia Aquarium.”

To interpret the work of SDOP that year, Dawson eventually identified a project in Puerto Rico where a group was awarded a grant to help tell their stories about losing their land and homes in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane. The project became the basis of Gracie’s story, “Gracie Becomes a Neighbor,” in which Gracie and her friends meet fish who had migrated into the canal through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea. Although Gracie wants to help these new neighbors by building homes, the kind of help they really want is to be able to tell the story of their journey, which she and her friends came to understand.

Although it’s hard for Dawson to pick favorites from among the stories, she is also partial to “Gracie and the Big Storm.”

“I had such a great experience at the Georgia Aquarium on that one because a docent took me backstage so that I could see that they were producing mangrove trees,” she explained. “In the event of a storm, fish will use the mangroves that grow in the Red Sea to hatch their young because it’s the safest place. It was such a wonderful experience that someone took the time to help me to be accurate.”

Dawson’s most recent challenge came with the arrival of OGHS’s 75th anniversary in 2024. Her assignment was to spotlight the Offering’s rich legacy, tradition and age.

In her story titled “Gracie and the Birthday Party,” Dawson used one of her reliable, recurring characters, Old Codfish, to celebrate OGHS’s milestone.

What constitutes “old” in the aquatic world was both the focus of Dawson’s research and the highlight of the story:

“Gracie swam forward and bubbled nervously. She didn’t know how to bring up Old Codfish’s age. She decided to just lay out the problem simply. ‘We were trying to invite other sea creatures to your party, but we weren’t sure who your friends were, so we simply asked those we met who the oldest sea creatures were and none of them could come.’

“‘I see,’ chuckled Old Codfish. ‘You thought because I am older that all my friends must be old as well.’

“‘Yes,’ agreed Gracie. ‘We found out about sea creatures who were 100, 400 and 500 years old.’

“‘Well, I am certainly not that old,” said Old Codfish, pretending to be offended. ‘But, I have many friends and former students who are all different ages. I am only 17 years old, but that is pretty old for a codfish. I do know of some jellyfish friends, who are called “immortal jellyfish.” They never get old. Each time they get injured, they go back into their young state and start all over again.

“‘That’s amazing!’ said all the friends at once.

“‘Yes,’ replied Old Codfish. ‘Most of us, however, do the best we can to help others while we’re here, no matter how long that may be. Speaking of being helpful, I heard that there are people all around the world who have been doing just that for a long time. So long, in fact, that they are celebrating 75 years of helping others.’”

As One Great Hour of Sharing marks its 75th year of reaching out in love to neighbors around the world, Dawson looks forward to growing with Gracie.

The book “Gracie’s Journey” is now available.

And watching and learning as children do the same.

“I hope that families will interact with Gracie,” she said. “That’s why I have activities at the end of every story for teachers or parents. She’s been a consistent presence in children’s lives since 2007, which helps to put a face on the Offering. It’s helpful for children to have a tangible character to connect with the giving that they’re doing to help others.”

When asked whether Gracie’s stories will continue to be told now that they have been compiled in a book, “Gracie’s Journey,” Dawson said she knows they will.

“And I am inspired in the journey,” she said, “to continue writing them.”

To order a copy of Gracie’s Journey, email PC(USA) Customer Service. The work of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is made possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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