Richard “Mac” McKinney, ’18, skills coach, motivational speaker, and peace and conflict resolution advocate, is a very different man today than he was in 2009.

Once a man determined to harm people in a misguided sense of duty to his country, Mr. McKinney has changed his life, transforming into an individual who instead strives to help people. His transformation included earning his bachelor’s degree in Social Work at Ball State University.

Mr. McKinney’s journey—from disoriented U.S. Marine veteran intent on blowing up a Muncie mosque into a proud, contributing member of the local Muslim community—is the focus of the Oscar-nominated short film documentary, “Stranger at the Gate.”

Mr. McKinney’s story begins in the early 1980s, when he embarked on a nearly 25-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, and the Army Reserves. Three years after being discharged from the military in 2006, though, he felt lost. He long held the belief that he would serve his country—maybe even die for it. With injuries sustained from being blown from a building in Iraq, Mr. McKinney was uncertain of his next steps.

“I wanted to die for a purpose, making a stand,” he said. “I had thought my destiny at the time was to die in combat, and that was taken away from me. Instead, I was medically retired. That’s not the way it was supposed to work. I was supposed to go home in a flag-draped coffin. Because, you know, you come back in a flag-draped coffin, you’re forever a hero. Period.”

Mr. McKinney didn’t know what his new purpose should be.

Civilian life was not a source of peacefulness when he left the military. A deep anger against Muslims brewed inside of him. Walking into stores and seeing women in hijabs—head coverings worn in public by some Muslim women—upset him. And the idea of Muslim children sitting next to his daughter in school filled him with rage. He saw Muslims as the enemy.

Mr. McKinney eventually channeled his anger and rage into a one-man plot to detonate explosives at the Islamic Center of Muncie. To him, this was a way to still serve his country—if in a very different way.

When Anger is Met by Kindness

Mr. McKinney visited the Islamic Center of Muncie one afternoon in 2009 to check out the target of his plan, which was nearly ready to be put into motion. But what he encountered on that visit was far from what he expected.

He was warmly greeted by those inside. Dr. Saber Bahrami, a co-founder of the mosque, sensed Mr. McKinney’s distress, yet hugged and welcomed him. Mr. McKinney was taken aback by such a warm welcome. He asked for a copy of the Quran to learn what he could about Islam. He went home confused but anxious to learn. He thought the Quran would surely contain the justification he needed to move forward with this plan.

But instead of hate, he found within its pages lessons of kindness, words of peace, and forgiveness. Mr. McKinney visited many more times, meeting Dr. Saber’s wife and co-founder of the mosque, Bibi, and most of the Islamic Center of Muncie members. He was invited to dinners at the Bahrami home and welcomed in a way he never expected. In just eight weeks, he had not just abandoned his plan to destroy the mosque—he decided to convert to Islam. In this faith and the people of this faith he got to know at the Islamic Center of Muncie, Mr. McKinney felt accepted.

“The timeframe still boggles me,” Mr. McKinney said. “Eight weeks, eight weeks, eight weeks. That’s how long it took me to go from blowing these people up to calling them brothers and sisters. It still does not make any sense. It’s not near enough time. But this is where it gets very much into faith. And I got to believe that it was God’s plan. I had to be this ugly person first in order to become this new man.”

Changing His Life’s Narrative, Armed with His Ball State Education

Richard "Mac" McKinney

Richard “Mac” McKinney

Like many adult learners, Mac McKinney’s path to Ball State was not a straight one. But ultimately, he felt that he needed a degree to be in a position to help people the way to which he was now compelled. He enrolled in Ball State’s Social Work program and pursued a minor in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.

With a new passion and purpose, he threw himself into being a full-time student. He was engaged and interested, and brought a unique perspective to the classes as a non-traditional student. One of Mr. McKinney’s first classes was Introduction to Peace Studies with Mr. Gerald Waite, a now-retired professor of Anthropology and current research fellow in the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.

“Mac and I got on really well because both of us are former soldiers. And with a very changed focus,” said Mr. Waite. “For me, it’s easy to understand where he came from.”

Mr. Waite and Mr. McKinney talked about their war experiences, and even published a paper together in 2016 for the Benjamin V. Cohen Peace Conference called “Six Wars and a Wake-Up: Warrior to Peace Workers.” The piece spoke to Mr. McKinney’s five wars fought and Mr. Waite’s one; what it meant to be former soldiers now working for peace. Mr. McKinney also interned at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies for three semesters, where he attended advisory board meetings and assisted with conference preparation and event planning within the community. Because of his experiences, he was also invited to speak to many Social Work and Anthropology classes.

“Mac is a good motivational speaker,” Mr. Waite said. “He’s got the right energy for it, and he’s good at what he does. I had him talk to my classes a lot because he brings such a different perspective of war, religion, and other cross-cultural subjects.”

“I picked Social Work because I figured that would open up the most doors of opportunity considering what I wanted to do,” said Mr. McKinney. “I want to help people. And I don’t think I’d be able to do it without this degree and my experiences at Ball State.”

“I Want to Change the Narrative of Hate”

People make significant changes in their lives. But not all of those people and their transformational journeys are explored in a short film—especially one that is nominated for an Oscar.

Today, Mr. McKinney works as a skills coach and conflict resolution advocate. He helps people with their coping skills using various behavioral therapies. And because he is such a powerful speaker, he has secured many speaking engagements to share his message of peace.

“I want to change the narrative of hate, and not just with religion, but race, gender—everything,” Mr. McKinney said. “I want to change the world.”

The 95th Oscars Ceremony will be held March 12 and televised on ABC. “Stranger at the Gate” can be watched in its entirety here.

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