Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

The man behind the bus

Eric DeBode
Eric DeBode
Photo: Charles Barry
Eric DeBode has acquired quite a jail “jacket” of his own—he’s been arrested more than a dozen times. In his case, the arrests came during protests against the death penalty, immigrant bashing, nuclear testing, and police brutality.

Born in Santa Monica in 1964, the son of a fireman and a homemaker, DeBode volunteered at a soup kitchen in high school, and he began considering a life in the priesthood.

“Jesus taught us to follow him by what he did,” DeBode says. “What he did was work with the ill and the suffering, the marginalized. To me, to be in the priesthood wasn’t mystical, it was practical.’’

In 1983 DeBode was accepted into the Jesuit Novitiate in Santa Barbara. He worked with homeless people and volunteered at a juvenile hall in East Los Angeles. In 1985, he became a Jesuit Scholastic and enrolled at Santa Clara.

In addition to working with the homeless as a volunteer through the Santa Clara Community Action Program, DeBode regularly made midnight forays with another Jesuit around the Mission campus, chalking onto sidewalks quotations from Ovid, Gandhi, Immanuel Kant, Dorothy Day, and Daniel Berrigan.

One night the miscreants were nailed by campus security. “Bob Senkewicz read us the riot act,’’ DeBode says ruefully. But that didn’t stop DeBode from winning the Riordan Award for Community Service. The day after graduating, the young Jesuit went to Central America to study history, politics, and economics.

He went on to enroll in the graduate philosophy program at Gonzaga University but didn’t complete his degree, instead moving to East Los Angeles to work at Dolores Mission Church. There he served students who’d been expelled from other schools because of gang involvement.

But in 1992, DeBode left the Jesuit order. It was an extremely difficult decision, he says, but he felt called to work with the homeless; he moved to Tacoma and served as director of a homeless drop-in center.

In 1996, he returned to California, joining the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. He earned $10 a week plus room and board, running a soup kitchen on Skid Row that served 1,000 people a day.

In 2000, he became the Southern California coordinator for California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. He now works out of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry Office.

“Eric has great heart as well as great intellect,’’ says Jeff Dietrich, who helped found Catholic Worker in 1970. Dietrich has known DeBode for more than 20 years. “He has a great desire for justice in the world. He loves the Gospel—the vision of the kingdom is what he desires.’’

While DeBode was at Catholic Worker, he met and fell in love with Alice Lins Meier, a teacher at a school for immigrants. They married in 2002. A year later, they adopted an infant girl, Liliana. They hope to adopt again, but in the meantime, they live simply, sharing their Oak View home with another couple.—EF