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: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.