Editor’s Note: This article is part of CNN indivisible series, documenting how Americans of different backgrounds find common ground. In this series that runs through the midterms, we describe unlikely friendships between people of different ages, races, religions and cultures.
Some members of the Mansi Islamic Centre knew the man was in trouble as soon as they saw the man walking towards them.
A big man with broad shoulders, he walked towards their mosque with his head down, flushed and angry. It was Friday at the Muncie Islamic Center in Muncie, Indiana, and the mosque was packed with people coming for afternoon prayers. He stands out as an outsider with a USMC tattoo on his right forearm and a skull tattoo on his left hand.
His name was Richard “Mike” McKinney, and he was there not to worship but to destroy. He is a former U.S. Marine who developed a hatred of Islam while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. His anger deepened when he returned to Mansi’s home and saw how Muslims had settled in what he called the city, even having their children sit next to his daughter’s elementary school.
On that day in 2009, he couldn’t contain his anger and went to the Islamic Center on what he believed to be his final mission. He planned to plant bombs in mosques, hoping to kill or injure hundreds of Muslims. He is on a reconnaissance mission to choose a location to hide his bomb and gather intelligence to test his hypothesis that Islam is a murderous ideology.
“I tell people that Islam is cancer; I am the surgeon who cured it,” he said.
But when McKinney entered the mosque, he encountered a form of resistance he hadn’t anticipated. Something happened that day that changed him in a way he never expected.
The man he intended to take his life would save his life in the end.
What happened to McKinney at the mosque was so dramatic it sounded like something out of a movie. In fact, it does.
McKinney’s transformation is the subject of a fascinating documentary short, “Strangers at the Door.” The film, which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, tells how McKinney abandoned his plot and eventually converted to Islam and took on a surprising role in a mosque.
McKinney recently spoke to CNN via video about his unlikely transformation. Wearing a blue ‘Say No Hate to Hate’ T-shirt over his muscular torso, McKinney has a long white beard that makes him look like a polished Santa Claus, and he’s blunt, no-frills tells his story, highlighting his 25 years in the military.
McKinney said he thought the visit on Friday afternoon could end in his death.
“At the end of the night, I thought they would put me in the basement with a sword to my throat,” he said.
Instead, several mosque members came forward and disarmed McKinney with some shrewd choices that might have saved their lives.
The film references an astounding act of kindness: Mohammad S. Bahrami, an Afghan and co-founder of the center, ended up hugging McKinney and shedding tears.
“To this day, it still doesn’t make sense to me,” McKinney said of the gesture.
The film’s director, Joshua Seftel, said he was drawn to McKinney’s story in part because he was in Schenecta, New York, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dee faced anti-Semitism growing up. The classmates slandered him while throwing coins at him.
Seftel presents his film as part of the online video series “The Secret Lives of Muslims”. He said McKinney’s story gave him hope that even some of America’s deepest divisions could be transcended.
“They were able to build an impossible bridge between each other,” Seftel said of McKinney and members of the Muncie Islamic Center. “If this can happen, then anything is possible. They give us a blueprint for how to do it.”
Divulging too many details about how McKinney was transformed would take away the film’s impact. But there are some scenes and characters to describe.
One is the story of how McKinney was changed by the battle. McKinney’s struggles after returning to Muncie in 2006 are a prime example of the adage, “There is no unwounded soldier in a war.”
McKinney said he was trained to fight Iraqi and Taliban soldiers not as human beings, but as paper targets on a shooting range. He also said he had difficulty finding a new community after he left the “brotherhood” he served alongside during his service. Once home, he began drinking and playing with women to numb his wartime experiences.
Seeing a Muslim only resurfaces his pain. He hated the presence of Muncie Muslims, as it seemed to make a mockery of the sacrifices he and his comrades made in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m reluctant to share,” he said. “I count America as mine. I bleed for it. It’s a ‘you don’t belong here’ kind of thing.”
In his grief, there is also guilt for the life he took in the battle. He is not only at war with Muslims; he is at war with Muslims. He is at war with himself.
“He couldn’t fully forgive himself for what he did,” Dana, one of his ex-wives, said in the film.
There are many people who have helped to dispel McKinney’s anger and guilt.
One of them, Jomo Williams, an African-American at the Islamic Center, knows something about anger. His great-great-grandfather was lynched and castrated by a white mob. He was hostile to whites until he converted to Islam.
Williams, who was one of the first to spot McKinney striding to the mosque, looked agitated and angry.
“When I saw him, he was walking a little faster, his head was a little lower, his face was a little red,” Williams said in the film. “I know something is wrong.”
As viewers can see in the film, Williams later asked McKinney a question that set him on the path to conversion.
But if there’s a heroine in “Stranger at the Door”, it’s the attractive woman everyone calls “Sister Bibi.”
Bibi Bahrami, co-founder of the Muncie Islamic Center, played a key role in McKinney’s transformation. Bahrami and her husband Mohammad are the backbone of the Muncie community. They have six children, several of whom have graduated from Ivy League schools and pursued various careers. She’s been whirlwind, volunteering at the Local Women’s Shelter, YWCA, Muncie Rotary Club, and Interfaith Fellowship, while serving on local committees and running fundraisers for local politicians.
She embodies the Qur’anic verse on the Islamic Center’s website: “The reward of goodness is goodness.”
She also knew the devastation caused by war. When the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, her family in Afghanistan was displaced. She fled her country in tears and spent six years in a refugee camp in Pakistan before marrying and heading to the United States.
Seftel calls her “Mother Teresa of the Muslim community” in Muncie. She is someone who takes in needy strangers in the community to wash and iron their clothes and feed them. She became so famous that refugees from other countries somehow found her phone number and address for help.
She said she experienced an awakening when she came to the United States and became a citizen.
“Freedom of choice is the most important thing to me,” she said of what she likes about America. “I’m still able to practice my religion, keep covering (wearing her hijab) and get an education. I’m inspired by these opportunities. I really love this country.”
Her service is also part of her worldview. Showing kindness to strangers is central to the Muslim faith.
“God created us all to know and care for each other — not to look down on each other,” she said.
Considering that many Muslim Americans are still treated as strangers in their own country, Bahrami’s hospitality is impressive. Hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. surged 500 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to a Brown University study, reflecting an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment after the 9/11 attacks.
Many still face hostility, surveillance and questions about their patriotism.
Some members of the Muncie Islamic Center stopped going to mosques for fear of burly marines with tattoos.
But Bahrami extended her sympathy to McKinney. She invited him to her house to cook a hearty Afghan dinner of chicken, rice, eggplant dishes, and green yogurt flavored with cilantro and lime juice.
McKinney devoured it.
“He’s tried everything,” she said with a smile. “He’s not picky.”
The meal became another bridge to McKinney. He kept visiting Bahrami and others at the center. He read the holy book of Islam, the Koran. He formed a friendship. He told members of the mosque about his experience in combat and they accepted him.
Eight months after McKinney’s first visit to the mosque, he converted to Islam. After the ceremony, he was greeted by people he had intended to hurt, in what he called “a pit for hugs.” Eventually, he even served as chairman of the Muncie Islamic Center for two years.
When asked how he felt when he was hugged after the conversion ceremony, McKinney grinned:
“I’m very good.”
Ask him why he converted and he will become more talkative. He said the more time he spent with mosque members, the more he realized how much he had in common with them. As a child he wanted to be a missionary, and he found some similarities between Islam and Christianity.
For example, Islam, Christianity and Judaism are connected in many ways. Each is a monotheistic religion whose origins can be traced back to Abraham. For example, many Muslims consider Jesus to be a great prophet born to a virgin mother.
But it turned out that in his conversion, the goodwill of the people at the center and the community they shared with him played the most decisive role in his conversion, he said.
“They’re just happy. They’re just happy,” he said. “I really need it in my life.”
He said if people at the center showed hostility on the first day, the result could be bloodshed.
Can it be said that their kindness saved his life?
“No, no,” he said. “It’s too small Say. ”
McKinney said that if it weren’t for the treatment he received, he could have attacked the mosque and ended up being sentenced to death.
Today, McKinney is trying to return the kindness to him. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social work with a minor in peace and conflict resolution, and now travels the country speaking about his experiences.
Now that he has converted, can he forgive himself? He paused before answering.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said in a husky baritone. “How about that?”
However, as illustrated by a beautiful scene in the film, others have forgiven him.
It shows McKinney standing beside Williams, the African-American who lost his great-grandfather to hatred, silently raising his palms in prayer as the golden sunlight streams into the mosque.
This photo conveys more than words can convey. McKinney was no longer a stranger at the door.
He found a new group of siblings – not in the heat of battle, but in faith.