Editor’s Note: This article is part of CNN’s Undivided series, which chronicles how Americans of very different backgrounds have found common ground. In this series, which runs through the midterm elections, we profile unlikely friendships between people of differing ages, races, religions and cultures.CNN —
As soon as some members of the Islamic Center of Muncie saw the man coming toward them, they knew he was trouble.
He was a big guy with broad shoulders, marching toward their mosque with his head down and his face flushed red from what looked like anger. It was Friday at Muncie Islamic Center in Muncie, Indiana, and the mosque was filling with people who had come for afternoon prayers. As an outsider with a USMC tattoo on his right forearm and a skull tattoo on his left hand, he stood out.
His name was Richard “Mac” McKinney, and he was there not to worship but to destroy. He was a former US Marine who had developed a hatred toward Islam during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. His fury deepened when he returned home to Muncie to see how Muslims had settled into what he called his city, and even sent their children to sit next to his daughter at her elementary school.
Unable to contain his anger, he went to the Islamic center that day in 2009 on what he saw as his final mission. He was going to plant a bomb at the mosque in hopes of killing or wounding hundreds of Muslims. He was on a scouting mission to pick a location to hide his bomb and to gather intelligence that would validate his assumption that Islam was a murderous ideology.
“I told people that Islam was a cancer; and I was the surgeon to cure it,” he says.
But when McKinney entered the mosque, he encountered a form of resistance that he had not planned for. Something happened that day that would change him in a way he never expected.
The people whose lives he intended to take would end up saving his life.
McKinney and the mosque’s members built ‘an impossible bridge’ to one another
What happened to McKinney at the mosque is so dramatic that it sounds like something from a movie. And in fact, it is.
McKinney’s transformation is the subject of a riveting documentary short called “Stranger at the Gate.” The film, which won a special jury prize at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, recounts how McKinney abandoned his plot and ended up converting to Islam and embracing a surprising role at the mosque.
McKinney recently spoke to CNN via video about his unlikely conversion. Wearing a blue “Say No Hate to Hate,” T-shirt over his muscular frame and a long white beard that made him look like a buffed Santa Claus, McKinney told his story in a blunt, no-frills manner that underscored his 25 years in the military.
McKinney says he thought his Friday afternoon visit might end with his death.
“By the end of the night, I figured they would have me in the basement with a sword to my throat,” he says.