In the churchyard, the boy bounces a red ball and pretends to dribble. He loves electronic games and hates turkey, the first food he tasted when he arrived in the United States from his home in Athens.

But behind his wide dark eyes and boyish banter, Vasilaki Papachristou, 12, carries the knowledge that his life hangs by a thread. His liver is not working properly. Doctors say he needs a transplant or he will die soon.

Vasilaki could get the operation he needs at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, if his family could afford it. His father owns a small hardware store in Athens and cannot pay for the expensive operation, said the boy's mother Mata.

"If you will be relying on private funding, the deposit requirement is $12,000 for the evaluation and $115,000 for the transplant, making a total deposit requirement of $127,000," a hospital official wrote to the Rev. George Papaioannou of St. George's Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda.

"This would have to be made in advance," said the letter from John Pitrone, a collection manager at the hospital.

Vasilaki has found a guardian angel, however, in Papaioannou, called "Father George" by his parishioners.

The minister not only is letting Vasilaki and his mother live in a small house on the church grounds, but he also is leading his congregation in trying to raise money to save the boy's life.

Some of the proceeds from a Greek festival being held at the church this weekend will go to pay for the operation, Papaioannou said. The women's auxiliary already has donated $5,000, money that was raised to pave the church's gravel parking lot. And all of the money from a dinner dance scheduled for Nov. 2 will go to help Vasilaki.

Papaioannou, a small-framed man with eyes that twinkle when he speaks, said he has sought and received offers of help from other Greek churches in the Washington area.

The boy's mother called Papaioannou in July and asked him to go to the hospital. Her son had had a stroke, and she wanted him to administer the last rites.

"I fell in love with the boy," Papaioannou said. "He had the most beautiful face."

After Papaioannou returned from a vacation trip to Greece, he said, he decided to do his best to get the child the operation he needs.

"The greatest service to Christianity is to the service of philanthropy," he said. "If you take it out of Christianity there's nothing left."

Dr. Thomas Starzl, a professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh who has examined the boy, said Vasilaki is stable now, but he "needs the transplant fairly quickly."

But until the money for the operation is raised, Vasilaki will spend his days at the church, playing games and watching television -- and waiting.

Acutely aware of his illness, he said he wants his operation so he can go home to his father and 14-year-old brother, whom he misses very much.

And someday, he said, he wants to become a doctor, because "I'd like to do something for humanity and discover something that will help people like me."