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: Past 25 years remembered, next 25 anticipated at More Than You Realize conference

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“Be not afraid!”

This was the rallying cry at the Aug. 11 More Than You Realize conference, echoing the very same call St. John Paul II gave exactly 25 years ago when he visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.

Over 5,000 faithful from across the Archdiocese of Denver filled the seats of the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland at what was the largest Catholic gathering in Colorado since WYD ’93. The all-day conference was presented in both English and Spanish tracks, featured a dynamic lineup of renowned Catholic speakers, and culminated in a powerful commissioning Mass.

The name More Than You Realize and consequently, the logo resembling an eyechart, stems from the idea that almost everything may appear a certain way at surface level, but upon closer inspection, it can be more than one realizes and seen in a different light. This is especially true when it comes to the Catholic Church.

Over 5,000 gathered at the Budweiser Events Center Aug. 11 for the More Than You Realize conference, which celebrated the last 25 years since World Youth Day in Denver and looked to the next 25. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

In planning for nearly two years, pastors from each parish of the archdiocese hand-picked those parishioners and members of their community who they wished to attend the conference, which revolved around the idea of discipleship. Through engaging videos and talks given by speakers such as Chris Stefanick, Luis Soto and Dr. Edward Sri, attendees were invited to join a new movement of discipleship within the archdiocese, echoing the one sparked 25 years ago at World Youth Day.

“[I] had a great rejuvenating time at the More Than You Realize Conference,” said Alex Martinez, a parishioner at St. Pius X Parish. “I am excited to see the MTYR movement take shape.”

Brenda Garrett, a parishioner of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception said, “It was an amazing event, so blessed my pastor Father Ron from the Cathedral Basilica sent me. I am so proud to be part of this movement.”

The key to evangelization

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford spoke before Mass began about the impact of World Youth Day 1993 and the challenges the Church faces today.

“What does the summer of ’93 teach us about our present circumstances in 2018?” the cardinal asked. “The Holy Spirit was sent out in a special mission to our Church in 1993. The power of that sending was unexpected and disorienting to me as archbishop and to most others.”

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford speaks during the More Than You Realize conference. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

But despite urban violence, threats of boycotts, organized protests and other issues prior to World Youth Day 1993, “a fundamental change took place in the Church of Denver,” said Cardinal Stafford, “but not only here — among the young people who came throughout the world, [and] even the Holy Father.

“Above all, our Church was transformed,” he said.

Cardinal Stafford said that to evangelize those who don’t know the Gospel, we first need “…a deep awareness of the delight of the Father taking in each of us as baptized men and women,” he said.

“I would urge you to think deeply and to pray deeply about realizing how delighted God is in you — each of you — because you are received by the Father as being [part of] the body of his Son, who is beloved.”

‘Jesus is much more than you realize’

In his homily given in both English and Spanish, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila also touched on what World Youth Day 1993 means for us today.

“The world likes to tell us many things about ourselves,” he said, “and not many of them today are good or uplifting. Just look at the distorted image of beauty that is prevalent today, let alone the distortions of what it means to be a human person…

“The devil is certainly having a field day in a world that has abandoned God, and even in some members of the Church who have a weak faith in Jesus,” he said.

But despite similar issues taking place in 1993, the pope brought to Denver a message of hope.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates the commissioning Mass that closed out the conference. (photo by Andrew Wright)

“When St. John Paul II spoke to the youth gathered for the prayer vigil on Saturday night at Cherry Creek State Park, he reminded them that God and a much bigger role for them to play in history,” said Archbishop Aquila.

That message is just as important today, within an archdiocese and Church that stand at a crossroads, the archbishop said.

“We have an opportunity to make a major impact for Jesus Christ, even as the surrounding culture is becoming less Christian.”

The pope opened the doors for those who attended to become greater disciples of Christ — not just directly after World Youth Day, but forever.

“St. John Paul II believed in retrospect that a revolution had taken place in Denver,” said the archbishop. “We, today, are the inheritors of this spiritual revolution, and we must not be afraid to put out into the deep to let our nets down for a catch.

“Jesus is much more than you realize. The Church is more than you realize. And your role in the plan of God is much more than you realize or [can] even imagine,” he said.

“And so, I beg you as your shepherd today to open your hearts to Jesus and speak heart-to-heart with him who loves you most.”

Aaron Lambert, Moira Cullings and Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.