If you’ve been around the Catholic social media space for any length of time, you’ve likely come across the work of John Kraemer and his LEGO Church Project. For over two decades, John has constructed beautiful works of art using humble LEGO bricks. Incredibly detailed inside and out, each of his plastic churches has a unique story to tell through this unusual medium. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview John about his LEGO ministry, evangelization, and disability awareness. For more amazing photos of past and present iterations of the LEGO Church Project, be sure to visit John’s Twitter feed.
Thomas Salerno: A lot of us were first introduced to LEGO as children. I know I certainly was. Was it the same for you?
John Kraemer: Yes. Growing up, LEGO was one of the first toys I remember getting. They were very fun to use since they had all these fun shapes and sizes.
What first inspired you to pursue LEGO building as a form of art? What was the genesis of the LEGO Church Project?
I’ve often told the story of growing up. I had friends who were always building these complex spaceships. Since that was something I wasn’t good at myself, I turned to buildings. Over time those buildings started turning into churches, which is something that was very much an important part of growing up—church and family. In those early days, I had no idea which direction God would take me with this.
Every year you begin the project anew from the ground up. Do you have a master plan from the outset, or do you let the design unfold as you go along? About how long does the entire process take from conception through construction?
The process from layout to finished build can take anywhere from one to two months. A lot of that depends on the complexity of the layout, important details going inside, and how many orders for parts I have to put in. As for the process of planning? I have several thousand ideas forming in my head when I start. In all reality, I never know where the story will take me until I sit down with the bricks. I may have a master plan going in. But most times, God has other ideas for me.
Do you see the project as a form of storytelling through LEGO? What kind of stories do you try to tell through your different builds?
I believe so. The story that I’m sharing is one that is common to all parishes. In my work, I am showing a “snapshot of parish life.” These kinds of stories are the ones reflected in the building, but also reflected in the mini-figures that sit inside.
In what ways has the LEGO Church Project helped you to grow in your own spiritual life? St. Paul urges us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). In what ways can a LEGO build be used as a form of prayer?
I’ve always seen the project as a form of prayer. In this case, praying with my hands. I have a lot of things that are on my mind while building and a lot of those issues go into what I’m working on. In that way the project has brought about my own awareness to the various needs and desires within the Church. It has allowed me to deepen my own prayer life. It makes me more focused on the world around me.
Bishop Barron often talks about the “the way of beauty” as a means of presenting Catholicism to an increasingly indifferent world. Do you see the LEGO Church Project as part of this same movement?
Yes. I believe that in my work I am sharing a representation of typical parish life, which means a focus on the Mass. The projects I build show a lot of beauty in them. Not just from the building itself but also from the people I put inside. They show how important our faith should be.
What have been the various responses to the project both in person and online? What do you think has been the greatest impact of your art?
Total amazement. They see the project in photos or online and it is hard to fathom how big my works are. More so in the last six or seven seasons. If it’s someone who has seen my previous seasons, then it’s an honest excitement for what I’m going to build next.
As for the impact of my work, I think that would depend on who you ask. Going back to the question about stories, some people look inside my work and they see a bit of themselves inside. Or they see a figure that could be someone they know. People see me using my talents and have been inspired to follow their own path. For some parents, they have been given hope. More so if their child has some kind of disability.
You’ve been remarkably open on social media about the struggles that come with being a disabled person. How has the LEGO Church Project helped you in your journey to overcome these challenges?
The mission of the LEGO Church Project has always been about awareness. Showing that no matter what challenge or disability that you face God can still use your talents. Given the fact that I have a mild form of cerebral palsy and other issues on top of it, I see the project as proof of that mission. Because it is something that I am living.
In the parable of the talents, the faithful are warned not to bury the gifts that God has bestowed (see Matt. 25:14-30). What advice do you have to offer to people who may be self-conscious or anxious about sharing their talents publicly?
I don’t worry about what people might say about my work or what issues they may take from it. I know in my heart that my talent is a gift from God and that is reflected in my own work. My own advice comes from doing this project for the past twenty-two years: Never be afraid to share your talents, because those around you will accept them. They will embrace your gifts, and they will know where they come from. If you are looking for direction on how to share your gifts, pray. God will open doors where it seems like none exist.