Local Catholic’s action against strip club van leads to unexpected result

Abriana Chilelli was fed up with driving her kids home from school.

It wasn’t a mundane routine or long commute that created her frustrations. It was a van with images of exploited women parked outside Diamond Cabaret — a downtown strip club — that sat in plain sight of passersby, including Chilelli and her young children.

“There’s a lot of stuff downtown that I was able to distract my kids with for a couple weeks,” said Chilelli. “But then after a while, it was hard. It was right at a light, so it was very difficult because we would always be stopped at the light. That’s where I started to get really angry.

“I thought, ‘All I’m doing is driving home and I’m working really hard to make sure that my kids aren’t seeing this pornographic image,’” she said. “And it was a lot of work.”

Chilelli, who works at the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic Schools Office as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, was upset by the degrading portrayal of the human body.

“We work really hard to teach our kids that your bodies are beautiful and they have meaning and they’re worth something,” she said.

Chilelli’s nine-year-old son started to ask his mom why she always tried to distract them at that particular light. He asked her if it was because of the van.

When she said yes, he replied, “Yeah, it just doesn’t look good.”

“He couldn’t articulate why,” said Chilelli, “but that sense that he had that it doesn’t look good and it doesn’t look beautiful was very clear for him. I was proud of him for being able to distinguish that.”

Chilelli changed her route to avoid the van, but it added 15 minutes to the commute. Between that and her son noticing the vehicle, she knew she had to act.

“It impacted me and made me upset for my son, but also for my daughters,” said Chilelli, “that they would start to think that their bodies might be for some sort of exploitation that was very apparently happening on that van.”

Chilelli reached out to the local police, who told her they were aware of the van but that it didn’t violate any public indecency laws. She then wrote to her city councilman and was referred to the councilman in the district where the van was parked.

“I didn’t expect anything to happen because I figured nobody would care,” said Chilelli.

But she did get a response, and although it wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for, it got the van moved.

It turns out the van’s location was in violation of a zoning code, which says you can’t have a parked vehicle advertising outside of your business, and Diamond Cabaret had to move the van to the back of the building — out of sight from regular street traffic.

“While I’m disappointed the code wasn’t protecting people from seeing the exploitation of people’s bodies,” said Chilelli, “it at least got rid of it.”

The experience reminded her that it’s worth it to stand up for the dignity of the human body, even if you don’t expect a positive result.

“When we look at all kinds of things that are happening in our culture with our understanding of what human sexuality is for and what our bodies are for, I can feel super overwhelmed,” said Chilelli.

“It can feel very much like swimming upstream — trying to raise children in this culture and trying to help them understand what we know from our faith is true about our bodies,” she said.

“This made me feel like actually I don’t have to feel so overwhelmed, that there are concrete steps I can take.”

Chilelli hopes the experience will one day inspire her own children to fight for their beliefs.

“I hope that they can see it as a message for them, too, that they don’t have to simply conform to what inevitably will be 10 times worse for them when they get to be teenagers or adults themselves,” said Chilelli.

“What’s true about the body will continue to be true, and that will become even more important as they grow up,” she said.

COMING UP: Swole.Catholic helps people strengthen body and soul

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St. Augustine once said, “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

Humans are both body and soul and both must be strengthened. This is the reason for the existence of Swole.Catholic, a group of people who dedicate themselves to nurturing their soul while strengthening their body, and through their ministry, motivate others to do the same.

According to Paul McDonald, founder of Swole.Catholic, they focus on encouraging faithful fitness. “We must take care of our temple of the Holy Spirit, because our bodies are one of God’s greatest gifts to us,” he said.

McDonald solidified the idea of faith and fitness when he was a sophomore in college. While “going through a huge moment in my life, at the same time I was really learning about the gym and learning ethical statements on my own. Both things clicked together,” he told the Denver Catholic. As a young guy, he started bible studies, and in those studies, he always had an analogy back to the gym.

He decided to make shirts for him and the guys in the bible study during his senior year. The shirts ended up becoming good conversation starters, and he decided he needed to do something with it — evangelize and motivate others to take care of their body and soul.

Thus Swole.Catholic was born. “Swole” is a slang term for bulking one’s muscles up from going to the gym, and of course, the Catholic part is self-explanatory — not only because of the Church but also for our faith and how it defines us in all we do. Swole.Catholic launched officially in Jan 2017.

The ministry consists of a website which provides resources to helps people with Catholic gyms, Catholic workouts, Catholic trainers, podcasts as well as workout wear.

The workout wear works as an evangelization tool. The word “Catholic” is printed on the front of the shirts and a bible verse is placed on the back.

“This raises questions or interest in others. It also works as a reminder of the purpose of the workout,” McDonald said. He added, “Most of the gyms we are going to have mirrors and all that, making you focus into yourself.” But the real purpose of the workout, as the members of Swole.Catholic say, is to strengthen your body and soul to live a healthy life.

Swole.Catholic also has rosary bands, a simple decade wrist band that people can wear while they workout and be flipped off at any time to pray a quick decade.

“Because everyone’s faith journey is different and everyone’s fitness journey is different, what we are trying to do is connect people with people [for them] to be able to have the correct support with their faith and fitness,” McDonald said.

That is why Swole.Catholic now has outposts around the country, with passionate Catholic members who love to help and inspire others in the fitness world while pursuing God in everything they do.

“Each one has its own flavor,” McDonald said. “In Florida we have a rosary run group where a bunch of girls meet up and pray rosary while they go for a run.” Among the outposts, there is also a group of guys in North Dakota who do a bible study and lift together. Similar to these two groups, members from other states have formed their own Catholic fitness groups and are now part of Swole.Catholic, including in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Wyoming and more.

“We encourage faithful fitness,” McDonald concluded. “We think your fitness fits in your faith as much as faith fits in your fitness. We are body and soul and we need to be building both.”

To join a group or a workout, visit swolecatholic.com or find them on Facebook.