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Organizer Gets His Parade

Redondo Beach Man Creates Event in 8 Weeks

May 27, 2003|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

When he was 8, John Lee Douglas hit his head on concrete and awoke from what he says was a near-death experience with a new closeness to God and a new name -- Adyatma Bhagavan Sri Babajhan Al-Khalil. In 1970, he started his own religion. But it took 20 years for him to fulfill another ambitious dream -- on Monday, he threw a Memorial Day parade. And he and his volunteers did it in eight weeks.

"I went to the City Council and said I want to have a Memorial Day parade," Bhagavan Friend, 60, recalls. (He rarely uses the full name. "You can't get it on a driver's license.") If they didn't give him the permits, he told them, "I will walk down the street by myself with a flag and a drum. And by golly, they took me seriously.''

So, on Monday morning, with a motorcycle police officer at his side and bagpipe players behind him, Bhagavan Friend, clad in jacket and tie, his long flowing hair pulled back into a ponytail, hoisted the American flag and kicked off what everyone in Redondo Beach, from residents to council members, proclaimed to be the first Redondo Beach Memorial Day Parade and Tribute.

Marching toward the ocean, Friend led a parade of military officers in Jeeps and Humvees, politicians waving from convertibles, Girl Scout troops and Cub Scout packs, karate kids and their teachers, members of the foster family of slain Marine Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a variety of local business people, and a tiara-wearing Miss American Teen, smiling of course. Redondo Beach police later estimated 2,000 people gathered along the route.

"I'm deeply impressed with the diversity of the people who helped make this possible," said Friend -- who runs a computer set-up business and secretarial service -- during the ceremony. "But mostly I'm impressed with the unity of the people. It's my conviction there is only one race -- the human race."

Many watching or walking in the parade knew nothing of Friend's religion, called God's Eternal Universal Religion, which he says has no churches and no more than 100 followers in the area.

"I just thought it was great to salute our fallen heroes and let the karate kids march," said Kevan Hill, an instructor from the California Youth Karate Club.

Those who knew didn't care. "I look beyond that," said Lt. Col. Thomas Lasser of the California National Guard, a legislative liaison officer to Gov. Gray Davis. Lasser, a Redondo Beach resident, spoke at the tribute. "I look at him being patriotic and in love with his community. It didn't matter who he was."

Besides, there's something distinctly American about a man who starts his own religion organizing a Memorial Day parade. "Somehow it reflects the freedom of this country," said Sharon Olsen, there with her husband, Bryan, and four young children.

Friend kept all mention of religion out of his parade. A remorseful Vietnam War protester, Friend had said he wanted for two decades to salute the military and its fallen heroes.

Working only with city permits -- not city funds -- he said he raised some $20,000 to run the parade, $10,000 going to a production company.

Some locals welcomed the solicitors but others were taken aback. "They were going door to door with eight people, and it was a little intimidating," said Councilman Chris Cagle. "I said, 'If you want to go door to door, just take one or two, not a whole entourage.' "

Across the area, breezes wafted over other commemorations, the most notable being the ceremony at the Veterans Cemetery in Westwood, where Gov. Davis spoke.

At the end of the Redondo Beach parade, people spoke of the need to remember. "Veterans are a hearty lot," said the parade's grand marshal, Army Lt. Col. Terrence Marsh. "Wearing a uniform is enough thanks for them, but we must take time to say thank you.... We must remember our freedom is bought and paid for with their sacrifice and duty."

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