The smell of sawdust permeates the air as the sound of electric saws and other woodworking equipment echo through the cinder-block building located on the edge of the city’s downtown in North Birmingham, Alabama.
To drive by the building on Arrington Boulevard, you’d swear it was abandoned, possibly on a fast track to being demolished. The exterior of the old warehouse appears to be missing windows and has some graffiti spray-painted on the walls.
Inside, however, it’s a different story.
Lawrence and his team of about a dozen young men are busy crafting some of the most beautiful pieces of functional art you’re bound to see anywhere in the Southeast. The cavernous space has instruments arranged in one corner where the workers gather for musical performances each day, a training room, a storefront with examples of the crew’s handiwork, and a funky basketball backboard handmade out of scraps of wood for impromptu games of one-on-one. The vibe is cool and stands in contrast to this heavily industrial section of town that is all but disappearing. It’s a living metaphor not lost on Lawrence.
“When people come by here and say, ‘Man, I thought this building was abandoned,’” he explains,“I say, ‘Isn’t it what’s on the inside that counts?’”
Lawrence founded Magic City Woodworks shortly after his own transformation a little over seven years ago. While working as a fireman for the City of Hoover, he became a Christian. Going “all in” upon his conversion, he turned his life in a new direction.
“I was in the back of the fire station and I was giving my life to Christ,” Lawrence says. “I started praying, asking the Lord, ‘What is it that You want to do with my life, and how can I serve?’ I had a woodworking business that I gave to Him,” he adds, “and Magic City Woodworks was born from that.”
Lawrence launched the nonprofit organization crammed into a one-car garage in Bluff Park, which was just enough room for a table saw and one other person. Lawrence founded the organization as a social-impact company focused on helping young men bridge the gap between unemployment and meaningful employment. With men forgoing college and either leaving or not entering the
workforce at significantly high levels, combined with high rates of fatherlessness in many communities, Lawrence was led to help battle the problems facing the men who make these decisions today. “One of the biggest things I want to address here in Birmingham,” Lawrence says, “is men who not only face employment barriers, but also manhood barriers.”
Currently, his program employs twelve men in a paid-apprenticeship program lasting anywhere from six to 24 months. Lawrence wants to be clear that Magic City Woodworks is not a recovery program for men just out of prison or a drug-rehabilitation program. The idea is, simply put, to provide opportunities for young men facing these barriers by offering them the skills and character traits that will lead them on the path to success.
Lawrence can point to his own life as a blueprint for his ministry. He describes himself as someone for whom “college was not an option,” having graduated high school with a 1.9 GPA. However, he says his father was a strong role model for him, giving him an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong work ethic. With Magic City Woodworks, Sheffield’s goal is to reach young men through his faith, providing them with spiritual direction while also promoting physical trades, such as woodworking, as honorable and valuable vocations.
“I was geared to work with my hands,” he says. “I just had a vision to see workshops for young people where they could learn trades and where I could teach them the art of work.
“Now’s the time. We can have all the jobs and training programs that we want, but I think there’s something to knowing people deeply and advocating for them,” Lawrence says. “We all need people in our corner.”
Magic City Woodworks operated out of his garage for about a year until he received a call from Sam Cathey, the owner of an old building on Birmingham’s northside. Also a Christian with a heart for ministry, Sam and Lawrence formed a tight bond
during a visit in that cramped space. Before he knew it, Sheffield jumped in Cathey’s truck and rode down to Birmingham. “He showed me this massive 12,000-square-foot shop, here in the middle of downtown, and asked me if I wanted it,” Lawrence says. The two gentlemen shook hands on a dollar-a-year lease two weeks later, and work began to take Lawrence’s dream to scale.
Throughout the shop, men are busy shaping pieces of lumber, much of it discarded wood, into amazing pieces of furniture, as well as smaller items such as coasters, cutting boards, and desk organizers. Magic City Woodworks has also landed some high-profile clients, including the Pizitz Food Hall, the new Atlanta office of Brasfield & Gorrie, and Taco Mama locations in Birmingham.
Standing on the loading dock while looking over the piles of wood waiting to be transformed into something useful and beautiful, the symbolism isn’t lost on the former Hoover firefighter.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see wood go from a chaotic form to a piece of furniture, when somebody stands back and sees the complete picture,” he says. “I think that’s very similar to what God’s done in my life. I went from lacking purpose and now being called into purpose.”
As he looks over the young men learning to be whole again and productive members of Birmingham, he pauses, breathes in deeply, and says, “It’s really a beautiful story of redemption."