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An ex-Marine was about to bomb an Indiana mosque. And then they welcomed him inside

Joshua Seftel’s ‘Stranger at the Gate’ tells the story of military vet Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney’s change of heart — and religion — after getting to know Muslims off the battlefield

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Richard 'Mac' McKinney as seen in 'Stranger at the Gate.' (Karl Schroder)
    Richard 'Mac' McKinney as seen in 'Stranger at the Gate.' (Karl Schroder)
  • Richard 'Mac' McKinney during his service as a US Marine. (Karl Schroder)
    Richard 'Mac' McKinney during his service as a US Marine. (Karl Schroder)
  • Jomo Williams in prayer at the Islamic Center of Muncie. (Karl Schroder)
    Jomo Williams in prayer at the Islamic Center of Muncie. (Karl Schroder)
  • Filmmaker Joshua Seftel (Courtesy of Smartypants)
    Filmmaker Joshua Seftel (Courtesy of Smartypants)

Richard “Mac” McKinney ended his 25-year career in the US Marine Corps as an angry, confused man. While serving several tours in the Middle East, he viewed all Muslims as mortal enemies. He still felt the same way after returning to his wife and daughter in Muncie, Indiana. His hatred was so toxic that his wife made sure to steer him clear of women in hijabs shopping in the aisles of the local Target store.

“Living in Muncie, now I was being forced to see people that I considered an enemy every time I went out the door. This is my country, my city. It got to the point where I wanted to do harm,” McKinney says in “Stranger at the Gate,” a 30-minute short film by Joshua Seftel.

In June, “Stranger at the Gate” won Special Jury Mention at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Beginning September 14, it will be available for free viewing on The New Yorker’s website and YouTube channel.

The film grabs viewers from the start, making it seem plausible that McKinney could have followed through on this threat of violence. He did, in fact, plan to construct an improvised explosive device (IED). He considered setting it off in front of the Islamic Center of Muncie on a Friday afternoon in 2009, just as worshipers were gathering outside the building.

“I was hoping for 200 dead or injured — at least,” McKinney says straight into the camera.

In the end, McKinney did not commit mass murder — thanks to a plot twist that demonstrates the power of kindness to change people.

“Kindness can be so transformative. Just talking to someone, reserving judgment, and finding common ground can make a huge difference,” director Seftel said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

The Brooklyn-based Seftel was referring to the way longtime members of the Islamic Center, including Afghan refugees Dr. Saber Bahrami and his wife Bibi Bahrami, and African-American Muncie native Jomo Williams warmly welcomed McKinney when he walked through the door.

Incensed that a woman wearing a burqa had picked up her son at his daughter’s school, McKinney was sure the boy was a terrorist in training and that it was time to put his plot into action. Looking for proof to justify the terrorist act he was about to commit, he forced himself to enter the mosque.

“I was convinced these people were killers. By the end of the night I thought they’d have me in the basement with a sword to my throat,” McKinney says.

Instead, he was treated as a valued guest, although the center’s members sensed there was something odd about him.

Moved — and much relieved — McKinney began to feel comfortable among these Muslim Americans.

“These people were just plain old pleasant. They were happy to be alive, happy to be American, and happy to talk to me,” McKinney says.

Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney during his service as a US Marine. (Karl Schroder)

McKinney visited the mosque repeatedly, found a community there, and within eight weeks had ditched his lethal intentions and decided to convert to Islam. He went on to serve as president of the Islamic Center of Muncie for two years.

While McKinney found a spiritual home in Islam, his conversion — and the revelation that he had considered blowing up the mosque — led to the dissolution of his marriage.

McKinney first appeared as the subject of an episode of Seftel’s Emmy-nominated “The Secret Life of Muslims” multimedia, multi-platform series. The series premiered in 2016 and has had two seasons so far, with a third in production. It aims to shatter Muslim stereotypes and combat Islamophobia by introducing a wide variety of American Muslims to the viewing public.

Many praised the “Secret Life of Muslims” videos, including people who wrote to Seftel telling him that they used them to open up constructive exchanges with loved ones holding anti-Muslim prejudices or misconceptions.

“I chose to focus on those kind of comments, rather than the flood of Islamophobic comments we got on social media,” Seftel said.

Filmmaker Joshua Seftel (Courtesy of Smartypants)

He even received a suspicious package at his office. It contained a self-published screed against the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.

“It’s disconcerting when someone finds your address and sends you something like that. I put it straight into the recycling bin,” Seftel said.

Seftel doesn’t recall any antisemitic comments directed at him. There was, however, a meeting he had with a Jewish power broker in Hollywood who made clear through his body language that he did not approve of Seftel’s project.

“He looked at me and raised his eyebrow and held it there for a while. I took it to mean that he was questioning what I was doing and that he was not in favor of my efforts to build bridges,” Seftel said.

Seftel obviously feels differently about the importance of making all Americans feel welcome, safe and understood. Having experienced pennies thrown at him when he was a boy in upstate New York — well-known antisemitic bullying — he said he knows well what it is like to be the object of hateful and racist stereotypes.

Following the popularity of the “The Secret Life of Muslims” segment featuring McKinney (it was broadcast on “CBS Sunday Morning” and garnered nearly 1.2 million times on YouTube), Seftel realized that this particular narrative deserved a more in-depth look.

Jomo Williams in prayer at the Islamic Center of Muncie. (Karl Schroder)

“It was clear to me that Mac was in a powerful position to convey the messages of these stories we’ve been telling. The audience can relate to him,” Seftel said about the decision to create “Stranger at the Gate.”

The filmmaker wanted to learn more about McKinney, and he was curious about the people who took him in and showed him kindness.

“They are the heroes of the story. They knew he was troubled, and they were even scared of him, but they stayed open. There is power in this, and the ability to do this is a lost art,” he said.

“Stranger at the Gate” leaves some questions unanswered. For one, law enforcement showed up at McKinney’s home several months after he initially planned the attack on the mosque, but decided not to pursue the matter when nothing incriminating was found on the premises. (McKinney said he disposed of the materials.) One is left wondering why there would have been no further investigation into the planned — if not attempted — felony murder.

Seftel said he didn’t inquire into this, suggesting that white privilege perhaps played into the closed case.

The film also touches on the subject of PTSD and the military.

“It’s not meant to be an indictment of our military, but soldiers and veterans do not get enough help. It’s obvious that Mac’s military experience was devastating on his psyche and had an impact on his behavior,” Seftel said.

From left: Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney, Jomo Williams, Dr. Saber Bahrami, Bibi Bahrami at the Islamic Center of Muncie. (David Herbert)

“In some ways, this film is about trauma, which is part of the life story of all the main characters. But there is also the element of hope, the glimpse of what America can be if we can get past things like racism, xenophobia, and conflict,” he said.

Indeed, he believes that the film’s timely and actionable message about finding shared humanity is applicable to all parts of the world, which is “at a boiling point.”

Thirteen years after abandoning his plan for mass murder, McKinney is still a Muslim. He has engaged in intensive psychotherapy and went back to school to become a social worker. He is also an anti-hate activist and speaker.

It seems that the gracious members of the Islamic Center of Muncie have forgiven McKinney.

“I hope the day comes when I can forgive myself,” he says in the film. “Maybe.”

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