How do you pray? Is there a wrong way to pray? U.S. Catholic Bishops put it this way: “Prayer is our response to God who is already speaking or, better yet, revealing Himself to us.” It’s like a phone is always ringing and God is just waiting for us to pick it up and spend time with Him. But how do you do it? It can be through recitation, through meditation, or maybe through the work we do.
In this episode we meet John Kraemer, a man who over two decades has offered as prayer his efforts to build a church each year out of tens of thousands of Lego pieces.
When you think of Legos, you no doubt envision the small bricks that ignite children’s imaginations by their possibilities. You sift through a box of tiny pieces looking for one to make that spaceship just right, or house a little more functional.
John Kraemer takes that to a different level.
He doesn’t just build a church, it’s a working model of parish life for a Lego World not unlike our own.
In a YouTube tour of one of the churches he’s built in two decades of his Lego Church project, you see the bright red church building covering the better part of a writing desk, with a tall bell tower with working bells. Strings of lights illuminate the interior filled with parishioners in the pews, the singers in the choir loft, and of course the priest at the alter.
But there are also intricate designs in the church floor reminiscent of old world tile; there are stained glass windows with the images of saints; it even looked like there are tiny Knights of Columbus in full regalia, uniforms with swords and plumed hats or chapeaus.
Pandemics and best-laid plans
The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted lives all over the world, and John “JM” Kraemer‘s is no exception. The 43-year-old man from Saginaw, Michigan had been planning to showoff the result of his 21st season at the helm of his Lego Church Project.
“I’m in Michigan and there’s been a lot of businesses that have folded permanently. There’s been a lot of damage done and a lot of a lot of lives have been ruined, not just from the virus itself. There’s a lot of collateral damage,” Kraemer said during a video call.
Kraemer is Catholic, and a proud member of Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Saginaw, even when Mass during a pandemic seems really foreign to him, with restrictions and guidelines in place. They’re just another sign of the strange times.
“I built the current project–season 21– I built that before everything kind of broke apart. So you get a comment or two here and there saying well your [Lego] parishioners are not social distancing,” he says. “This is a prayer, my friend. This project has always been a prayer.”
Kraemer’s Lego Church project is impressive on its own, and it takes a tremendous amount of concentration and skill. He’s not an architect by trade, but he is a passionate builder.
He also builds while managing a mild form of cerebral palsy.
“It it means that I have issues with hand-eye coordination, certain motor control/balance issues, and some learning difficulties as well, and some sometimes occasionally issues with social interactions and social cues,” he explains, saying that it can cause exaggerated movements or other challenges while focusing on his constructions. “It’s not just a one size fits all kind of condition. There’s multiple different things.”
The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few
Kraemer’s medical challenges have made working a 9-to-5 difficult, especially in a dynamic and sometimes chaotic environment like a fast food joint, or a store, so he’s on disability. But he uses his time and talents to build Lego churches, just as he’s done for much of his life.
“The Lego Church Project got its start when I was a kid, in some ways I was always building churches. I was always working with Lego. The church was something that was important part of our foundation growing up,” he says. “And as a kid, you’re learning that you pick up on that.
Kraemer sees Lego as an amazing artistic tool; a building medium filled with possibilities. It was back in 2000 when he built his first church display as part of the Christmas season which became a kind of tradition.
“What I was doing originally was something that was fun and it still is. What it turned into, though, was a way to share the faith with others on a creative level,” he says. “I started using the term Lego Church Project, probably officially season four or season five.”
Kraemer says he started to share photos online–in the pre-Facebook days, mind you. He eventually caught the eye of a local newspaper, and has slowly worked his way toward this season 21 of building his Lego churches.
Originally he built displays for Christmas, but he started to want to work earlier in the year. So Christmas became November, became June, became March, because January.
A Lego church is not built in a day
Kraemer’s projects can take a month or more to fully construct as he fills in the details of a model 45 inches by 23.5 inches by 23.5 inches.
He grids out a baseplate to use as a template for his creations, and begins to add in details.
“I will box out everything and the layout will sometimes take shape. The area where the altar is going to be, the tabernacle. Where’s that going to go? How is that going to fit into place?” he says. “A lot of the decisions that reflect the rest of the build go from there.”
Kraemer says he’s usually bounding around the project as he goes, piecing together his creation and troubleshooting as he goes.
“In the last 10 years, I could tell you none of the builds have gone the same way twice,” he laughs. “There are similarities, but never the same way twice.”
For this season Kraemer says he started with sidewalls, and then interior details. You have to get the floor in early, he says, because you don’t want it too high and you’re reaching your arm in to get pieces just where you want them.
With pews, balcony sections, and more, things start to take shape pretty
To build big churches out of Legos you need big numbers of Legos: we’re talking 25 or 30,000 pieces. Kraemer says his project has earned donations from the public, which he uses to help find pieces he might use. There are online marketplaces for Lego pieces he says.
And you can also find specialty pieces from people, like the windows that look like the saints in stained glass.
But he can’t use all stained glass because he wants people to look inside his creations and peer in on a Catholic Mass celebrated in Lego form. He works hard to troubleshoot issues, like how to string the lights in the Lego rafters of the Lego church, or connect light strands in such a way that you can’t see things hidden in the Lego church bell tower.
“I make it for everybody. Over the years, you have the kids that love it because it’s Lego, but you also have it for the adults, too, especially some of the older adults, the seniors, it will trigger something in their memory,” he says.
“I took one of the projects many years ago, my first time taking it to a nursing care facility,” he continues. “The the older people there just loved it. They loved it because was something different. But for some of them, you could see the the flicker in their eyes of a memory of a church from long past. For me to be able to touch someone’s heart, that makes it worthwhile.”
Kraemer says he doesn’t know what kind of story he’s going to tell with his churches until he “sits down with the bricks,” the Legos.
“I’m trying to build my interpretation of a church, and it’s not just the building itself, but it is the community involved with it,” Kraemer says. “That’s why there are so many people inside my project, because we’re truly a community. I firmly believe that. So for me is kind of a combination, both of a feeling, a sense of joy, a sense of peace.”
Kraemer says his Lego Church Project is meant as a prayer for our communities, and church, especially in times of difficulty.
“We have kind of lost our way in some respects, and if anything the pandemic has taught me, we’ve really had to re-learn how to be faithful. I certainly had to learn what sacrifice was,” he says. “So to be able to sit and work on my project, in a way it is really a prayer for who we are. But you have to have that passion for it. If you do not have a passion for the faith, your artwork of this nature is not going to come through.”
“I am a firm believer that God can and will use your talents in creative ways,” Kraemer says. “God has certainly given me this amazing gift, and I am a firm believer that our gifts we should share with others, even in this time of the pandemic that’s on everyone’s hearts and minds, it’s on mine as well. But we can use our talents as a way to pray that things can get better. That our challenges do not define us. It’s how we choose to live the faith, that’s what people recognize. I’ve had people noticing my pray the Rosary Tweets. I do blogging now occasionally where I talk about faith and disabilities. These are the things that I live with. So if anything, God is allowing me to use my talents in a creative way, and I’m very thankful for that.”