Rising out of Lake Huron off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Mackinac Island has long been a small place of shifting communities tied to the broader economy. Once a center of the beaver fur trade, tourism took hold of the island in the late 1800s—and has not let go. Today, Mackinac tourism relies on the labor of seasonal, summer workers from across the world: Jamaica, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Central America. As Jesuit Brother Jim Boynton, a former leader of the island’s Ste. Anne’s Church, says, “you really have the whole world come to Mackinac” in the summer. Being part of this global economy has played an important role in shaping philanthropy on this island.
Home to 500-600 year-round residents, Mackinac is quiet in the winter season, surrounded, as it often is, by ice several feet thick. But come summer, the population can swell above 15,000 on any given day. Victorian mansions and the novelty of horse-drawn carriages draw tourists to this place that, for decades, has relied on seasonal summer laborers to work in hotels, shops, golf courses, and restaurants. Many of these workers rent dorm-style housing and pay for cafeteria-style meals offered by their employers.
Brother Boynton remembers the day his “eyes were opened to the reality of [seasonal workers’] situation”:
“It was when I was back [on the island] during 1996, I went upstairs in the church late at night once, to lock the church, and there was a young Jamaican lady, late at night in the back of the church and she was crying…I'm a minister and so I went up to her and asked, “Are you all right?”.... In May, she had given
birth to her baby. A month later, she left the baby with her mother, came to work on the island to support the baby and the family.
And I just realized the pain that she had being separated from her baby, from her child. So I took her down to the [church] basement. This was before cell phones and Skype and WhatsApp and all that. And we called home on the church phone and I said, ‘Just get the baby. Have it laugh or cry or just make any noise,’ so the mother can hear.’ And that was when I realized we need to do more for these people who were away from home.”
Workers like this young mother have faced a series of challenges over the decades, including loneliness, language barriers, cultural differences, and long work hours. Brother Boynton notes that seasonal workers perform “the hidden jobs”—laundry, dishwashing, street sweeping, housekeeping. The seasonal nature of Mackinac tourism—April through September—also poses a challenge. While many workers return for multiple summers, their jobs hinge on employers’ ability to secure enough H-2B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers for temporary nonagricultural labor.
In attempting to address some of these challenges, Brother Boynton looked for ways Ste. Anne’s Church could be used to help migrant workers “make communities amongst themselves, so that they would be able to support themselves. You know, hitch them up and get them together, let them have a meal together, so that it'll help them—enable them—to make their own community within the community.”
Glen Bulgin did just that when he proposed the idea for an interdenominational church service to be held at Ste. Anne’s Church. Bulgin, the head waiter of the Grand Hotel, has traveled from Jamaica every summer for almost 30 years, living away from his wife, children, and grandchildren for several months each year. During his first summer on the island in 1990, he noticed that “Some people were lonesome and people were feeling frustrated knowing that they missed their families...I thought it was a good idea for us to have someplace to worship, where they can come and they can go have fellowship together and worship the Lord.”
Drawing people together in the same space was a first step in Ste. Anne’s role in supporting seasonal communities on Mackinac. In addition to opening the church to interdenominational services to multiple ethnic groups, Ste. Anne’s has been hosting summertime dinners that seat 200 people for more than twenty years, with the support of the parish and local restaurant owners. Those dinners draw together workers from the same home country to provide them with a space to socialize and get to know one another. Brother Boynton believes that “those meals really became a social focal point for a lot of workers.”
In his efforts to “do more” for seasonal workers, Brother Boynton also wanted to create opportunities for recreation. “They’re working, working, working” and “[t]hey never get to see the beauty of Northern Michigan.” So he began getting groups of workers together and helping them arrange to have the same day off. “And then I'd talk to the boat company and get free tickets and take them to some place—take them to Tahquamenon Falls....have a picnic lunch, rent a boat, go swimming, spend a day up there, come back and then have a cook out, a picnic at my parents in Saint Ignace in the backyard, and then come back to the island.”
Brother Boynton not only wanted seasonal workers to get to know one another; he wanted to make connections to people as well. Through his work in helping other people connect with one another, Brother Boynton has enlarged his own community. When he travels internationally he meets people who have worked summers on Mackinac and he makes an effort “to keep those connections going.” His work in supporting community is part of his philanthropic and religious calling: “I have seen the face of God in many different faces and for that I am tremendously blessed,” he says. “And I believe I have received far more than I've ever been able to give” by doing this work.
One of the ways you can really get to know people, Brother Boynton says, is to learn their language. Indeed, learning Spanish changed his interactions with many seasonal workers: “[I] started doing a lot more socializing...visiting them and doing [ESL] classes, having them come to the church and cooking a big meal....We would just let it be known that we're going to have a Spanish speaking night.”
As Brother Boynton got to know workers, he recognized some of the challenges they faced resulting from cultural misunderstandings. Laws in people’s home countries, for instance, sometimes clash with the laws of Mackinac Island. At times, this results in tension with police. To alleviate cultural misunderstandings, Brother Boynton “would tell the police if you need a translator, come and get me, call me, I’m right here. And I would explain, and there’s no mal-intent on either side, and I saw improvements over time.”
Breaking down language barriers, food, music, recreation, and sharing space for worship have been part of Brother Boynton’s efforts to support community interaction in the many places he has served. “I've always said there's a number of international languages. I always thought it was music and soccer. That's what I originally said. But...there's a lot of international languages. Magic is one; any kind of sport—not just soccer. Food, the exchange of food. Art is another one.”
The challenges seasonal workers face are not altogether new to Mackinac Island. For centuries, the island has been a meeting place where cultures collide, language barriers exist, and the summer season brings an influx of people. But the particularities of the seasonal communities on Mackinac Island—and their needs—have changed over time. Despite quaint cottages, Victorian architecture, and horse drawn carriages that make visitors feel as though they are stepping into the past, Mackinac Island is a place firmly rooted in a modern, global economy of tourism and temporary jobs—an economy that has shaped philanthropy on this out-of-the-way island.
This essay is based on oral histories conducted with Brother Jim Boynton and Leanne Brodeur as part of the Philanthropy Initiative’s Oral History Project.