Richard McKinney grew up trying to prove he was a young man with a future, so he joined the Marines as his father had. His career lasted 25 years, mostly on tours of duty in the Middle East. After 9/11, many Americans were uneasy with Muslims in their neighbourhoods. When Richard returned to live in the USA, he saw Muslims as the enemy infiltrating his country.
Struggling with memories of war and trauma, his return to civilian life was difficult because he was not at peace with himself. He moved to a small town in Indiana, married a lovely woman with a young daughter he adored, and tried to settle into everyday life, but there was a problem. In this small town, there was a Muslim community of a few hundred people. He worried about his daughter being in danger with Muslims so close, so he decided it was necessary for him to rid the town of Muslims. He hoped to kill at least 200 people at the mosque. He secretly began preparations to build a bomb, and one day he visited the mosque.
This story is told in a thirty-minute documentary entitled Stranger at the Gate, which was nominated for an Academy Award this year. It did not win, but it generated discussion among people of different faiths because it is a true story of kindness and love overcoming anger and hate.
The film begins with interviews of Richard and several members of the mosque. When Richard arrived at the mosque one day, a few members realized that this stranger was in distress. He explained that he wanted to learn about Islam, but he was obviously very uncomfortable in their presence. They warmly welcomed him. They learned about his military background and his difficulty returning to civilian life. They invited him to their community dinners and they welcomed his wife and young daughter.
All this time, the members of the mosque had no idea that Richard was a danger to them. After a few weeks, the FBI came to investigate Richard’s activities and his suspicious purchases of materials to make a bomb. Finally his whole story was revealed. However, by that time, Richard’s hatred had turned to compassion for his Muslim friends and he had abandoned his murderous plan. Eventually, he converted to Islam and became a very active member in the Muslim community.
The film concludes as it began, with interviews of Richard, his wife and daughter, and a few members of the mosque. We learn their reactions and emotions to the story as it evolved. Richard is honest about his initial hatred and fear of Muslims because of his experience in the Marines. The members of the mosque acknowledged their shock to learn that they had welcomed someone into their community who hid his hatred and meant to harm them, but they did not regret their kindness to him because that is a fundamental teaching of their faith—to welcome the stranger.
To welcome the stranger is a central teaching of our Christian faith. Unfortunately, in our time of social unrest and prejudice, we are more likely to be wary of a stranger and avoid hospitality. The Biblical teaching to welcome the stranger may be viewed as unwise, especially if the stranger is different from us. We may make assumptions about people of a different race or religion or cultural identity.
It is encouraging to see religious communities of various faiths gather resources to help strangers in need of food, clothing, or shelter and hospitality. Many people need help just to stay alive. People need kindness to overcome despair. It’s tempting to turn away and believe that such problems are for someone else to solve.
Every day, there may be a stranger at the gate, the street corner, or the church door, who is a blessing we do not recognize. We need to love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with our God, as the prophet Micah said. Then with God’s help, love can be stronger than hate.