(RNS) — The cities where houses of worship have been attacked have become synonymous with mass killings: Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Charleston, South Carolina. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Muncie, Indiana, came close to being another.
The Islamic Center in the city, about 50 miles northeast of Indianapolis, was the target Richard “Mac” McKinney had selected, planning to detonate an improvised explosive device in 2009. A former Marine who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, McKinney was full of hatred for Muslims.
He had decided that he had to “protect his homeland” after his stepdaughter came home from school one day talking about a classmate whose mother was dressed in a long burqa with only her eyes showing. He would trigger the bomb from a parking lot across the street.
But first he needed to visit the mosque to survey the place.
What happened next is the subject of a new 30-minute documentary, “Stranger at the Gate,” debuting on The New Yorker magazine’s YouTube channel Wednesday (Sept. 14). The documentary is part of director Joshua Seftel’s years-long effort to combat Islamophobia.
Instead of finding enemies at the mosque, McKinney encountered several of the members of the Islamic Center of Muncie who welcomed him inside.
Bibi Bahrami and her husband, active members of the mosque, invited McKinney to their home for dinner. They had heard rumors about his motives from other Muslim members and intuited that something was not right. But the couple, refugees from Afghanistan who settled in the United States in the 1980s, were committed to healing and health. Mohammad Saber Bahrami is a family physician.
“I could see the vulnerability in him,” Bibi Bahrami said of McKinney. “He needed some respect and he needed to be heard.”
“To me, the story is very much about this moment,” said Seftel, who is an occasional contributor to “This American Life” and a commentator on CBS’ “Sunday Morning.”
“It’s the story of division and hate circulating around the world.” And, he added, “It shows change is possible.”
But the film is as much a story about offering hospitality to others. Bahrami said she grew up in a house where her parents regularly brought home strangers. Her husband does that every day in his practice.
McKinney said he was totally unprepared for the welcome he received.
“They were just plain pleasant,” he said in a phone call from New York, where he was attending the documentary’s premiere. “I didn’t expect that. I expected to be judged. I expected to be looked at like I was less than human because I didn’t follow the Islamic path. But I wasn’t. I was basically treated like one of them. It threw me off. I wasn’t ready for that.”
McKinney is now a Muslim; he converted about two months after his first visit. He even served for two years as the president of the Muncie Islamic Center. “I have to believe it was God’s plan,” McKinney said. “With the amount of hatred I had I should still be wrestling with it. It had to be God’s plan.”
McKinney, who now works as a life skills coach for a mental health company, has told his story in many venues. It originally appeared in a local newspaper, where Seftel read it.
“The fact that Richard McKinney, who wanted to bomb a mosque and commit murder, can now be friends with the people he wanted to kill and the fact that members of the mosque can forgive him and be friends, then anything is possible,” Seftel said. “That’s why I love this story.”
“Stranger at the Gate” is the capstone in a series of shorter video posts Seftel created called “The Secret Lives of Muslims,” that have appeared on Vox.com and in other media sites. After winning a prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary will be screened this fall in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, among other cities.