(Hamilton Spectator) - At Hamilton's St. Mari Assyrian Church, parishioners endearingly call George Hashimoto, 13, their "small deacon."
"We're proud of him," says Evette Haddad. "He's unique, so we gave him that little title."
George is the church's "Old Testament Reader." It's a distinguished position requiring investiture by the Assyrian bishop in Toronto — an honour bestowed when George was only seven.
St. Mari's priest, Father Younan Marwan, says George is very smart and was "the youngest in our church in the world, I'm sure, when he started reading."
George, whose mother is Assyrian from Iraq and father is Japanese, has spoken and read Assyrian fluently since an early age.
Assyrian is also known as Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, says Deacon Adnan Barkho. Aramaic is akin to "the old English," he says.
So how does a seven-year-old become an Assyrian reader?
George, now in Grade 8 at St. Anthony Daniel school, says he learned to speak Assyrian at a young age because his lives with his mom — his dad is also Christian, but now lives in Japan. His parents met in Iraq, where many Assyrians in Canada are from.
George, at seven, was in Toronto with his church for a special occasion and participating in afternoon prayers, he says, when the bishop heard him and saw him reading. "He asked me if I would like to dedicate my life to God."
George agreed, starting by becoming the Old Testament Reader every Sunday and on special occasions. His duties now include carrying incense around the congregation.
He enjoys it, he says because "I think of my future … I like serving God (and) I don't just think of this world; I think of the next one, too."
It feels good to help, he adds. And doing the readings helps him, too. "Often during Mass, you feel relaxed and lose all your worries in the world … like the war in the Middle East and (conflict) between ISIS and Christians. A lot of the Christians there are Assyrians."
St. Mari's, which belongs to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, was established in Hamilton in 1990. It is second largest Assyrian Church of the East parish of the four in Ontario, after Toronto, says Father Marwan.
The Hamilton parish started with 60 to 65 families in the 1990s, using space in St. Thomas Anglican Church on Main Street for masses. In 2000, it bought St. Timothy's Anglican Church on Stone Church Road West and made it Assyrian.
It now has 380 families making up roughly 1,000 parishioners, said Marwan. Many are originally from Iraq, with about 15 to 20 per cent from Syria and about 5 per cent from Iran.
The church is also the only place for Hamilton's Assyrians following the Church of the East to gather as a group, socialize and get to know each other.