September evening in 1987, 6,000 youth poured into the Universal
Amphitheater in Los Angeles to meet Pope John Paul II during his
pastoral visit that year to the United States. Some 1,200 more
youth in St. Louis, Denver and Portland were also assembling in
their own cities to witness the event via satellite.
Phone Never Stopped Ringing
Among those to make presentations to
the pope was Tony Melendez of Los Angeles, a young man born in
Nicaragua in 1962. Melendez was sitting on a little red platform
about 20 steps in front of the main stage upon which the pope
was sitting. The two sleeves of Melendez's short-sleeve shirt
hung empty from his shoulders. He had come into the world without
arms. He sat there barefooted before the pope. His guitar lay
flat on the platform before his feet. A tremendous sense of excitement
filled the amphitheater.
"Holy Father," a young man
said into the microphone, "we
have a special gift that we would like to present to you."
Realizing that the "special gift" was Tony Melendez,
the pope focused
his attention on the barefooted youth on the platform a dozen
yards in front of him. The whole audience did the same.
"Our gift represents courage," the young man said, as
he introduced Melendez to the pope. The pope nodded and smiled.
Melendez moved his feet up to the strings of the guitar and began
strumming. Then, closing his eyes, he sang a simple song called
"Never Be the Same," which rose from his heart like
a prayer. It included these words:
"Today is like no other day before,
And you and I will never be the same.
I give you all my love this day
and every day,
Forever and forever, in our joys
and in our pains."
As soon as Melendez finished his song,
the whole audience rose to its feet, erupting into wild applause.
John Paul II was already standing, too, and clapping his hands
enthusiastically over his head. Then the pope suddenly started
moving toward Melendez's platform, causing the security people
to scramble to keep up with him.
The pope was soon at Melendez's feet.
He leaned forward to embrace the youth. Blinking back tears, Melendez
bent forward on one knee and the pope kissed him gently on the
right cheek as Melendez did the same to him.
The wild cheers of the 6,000 young
people grew even louder. The applause continued as the pope returned
to his chair. To quiet the crowd, the pope began shouting "Tony!
Tony! Tony!" in his deep, resonant voice. When the voices
and applause finally settled down, he said: "Tony--you are
truly a courageous man. You are giving hope to all of us. My wish
to you is to
continue giving this hope to all the people."
It was a most incredible day for Tony
Melendez. And just as his song predicted--and as Melendez still
confesses today--"My life has never been the same since that
"The next morning when I woke
up," Melendez told St. Anthony Messenger in a recent
interview, "the news vans of CBS, NBC and ABC--the three TV
networks--were sitting in front of my house! And the questions
started flying: 'What does Tony Melendez do? What is his daily
life like?' The telephone began ringing from morning to night-with
no break in between.
Performances Go On
"That happened for a week solid.
All of a sudden I started traveling like a maniac. I was playing
at churches all over the place. I felt I was being passed around
like a relic!"
What was his reaction to the instant
success? "More than anything, it scared me," the 34-year-old
musician admits. "There was just so much so fast. It got
overwhelming. I couldn't go anywhere without people recognizing
me, especially in Los Angeles. I don't think the pope realized
what that kiss really did!
"Concerts piled up. That first
year I probably could have been on the road every day--or at least
every weekend--and never come home."
Even going to Mass could be a hassle,
says Melendez. Parishioners would whisper, "Tony is here."
Or the pastor would come over and ask, "Would you sing a
song, Tony?" Despite the wonderful attention, Melendez couldn't
help feeling anxiety: "I was there to go to Mass," he
says, "or just to pray with the people. But even Mass could
get irritating for me because I could not focus as long as they
were focusing on me. The tension rising from all this was disrupting."
How did he pray amidst all the confusion?
"I don't see myself as a person who prays that well,"
he responds. "I would simply say prayers like, 'Dear Lord,
help me, please. Get me through this day and help me make the
right decisions and moves. Don't let this go to my head.'"
During the months following his meeting
with the pope, Melendez was a frequent guest on TV, appearing
on Good Morning America, as well as talk shows hosted by
Arsenio Hall, Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford, Mother Angelica
and Robert Schuller. His concerts, meanwhile, were taking him
to 49 states and to 13 other countries, including Holland, Italy,
Israel, Japan, the Philippines, Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, El
Salvador and Venezuela.
There was also a book deal with Harper
& Row. With co-writer Mel White, Melendez authored an auto-biography,
A Gift of Hope: The Tony Melendez Story, published in 1989.
The book sold out within a few years and
is no longer in print. It is now being reprinted privately by
Melendez as a paperback and should be off the press this month.
The reprinted version features an epilogue in which Melendez updates
the reader on his busy life from 1987 to the present (available
from Gift of Hope, P.O. Box 118, Lake Dallas, TX 75065, phone
Even now, nine years later, he is on
the concert circuit much of the time. "We are on the road
15-20 days a month," he told St. Anthony Messenger
in late April after performing in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He
had come there to take part in a retreat-workshop with the Catholic
Musicians Association, a group called together for the first time
by Catholic singer John Michael Talbot at the Little Portion Retreat
and Training Center. The Center is part of the outreach of Talbot's
monastic community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity.
Nicaragua to Los Angeles
After an introduction by Talbot, Melendez
led off a public concert at nearby Thorncrown Worship Center.
The concert also featured other Christian musicians attending
the workshop, including John Michael Talbot, Michael Card and
When you see Melendez perform, you
understand instantly why he is
a "gift of hope" to those who see him. His good humor,
easy laughter, self-confidence, deep faith and lack of
self-pity convey an amazing inner wholeness and a deep humanity.
He sits on a simple chair in the middle
of the stage. His guitar lies flat on
the floor before him. "I'm a fancy toe-picker," he jests,
as he begins strumming with his feet and singing from the heart.
Melendez starts off with "Never
Be the Same"--the song he sang for the pope. Because of its
haunting melody and especially because of the bold faith and generous
heart of the one singing, certain words of the song bring the
audience close to tears: "We become the sign of love our
God has given us. We become the witness to his reign....Now with
open heart I offer you my life in mystical surrender....With you
we will bring light into the dark...."
When you see the wonderful humanity
and courage of this young musician, your own troubles become small.
You really witness someone "bringing light into the dark!"
In an instant, you grasp how much he has overcome--and with what
Still strumming the guitar during
a break in his introductory song, Melendez gently speaks these
words to the hushed audience: "How is a guy with no arms
supposed to give hope? I can't even serve you in the sense of
giving you a plate of food. Well, it's my heart and my music that
are serving you. And you can serve. You do not need arms,
legs, eyes to love. Please don't tell me you need those things.
You need a heart--as we say in Spanish, un corazón."
Then he repeats the final verses of "Never Be the Same."
As soon as the song is finished, the
whole audience leaps to its feet amidst deafening applause. Many
are choked with emotion and pride because of the profound humanity
which this young man conveys. Hearts are brimming with gratitude
for the "gift of hope" they have just received.
A few songs later in the concert, Melendez
sings "You Are His Miracle." It's about the woman in
the Gospel who seeks a miracle by touching the border of Jesus'
garment and who is made whole because of her simple trust. Melendez
comments: "People in 1996 ask me, 'Tony, where are the miracles?
I want one! Where are they?'" Melendez replies to his own
question very softly, almost whispering: "If you ask a person
like me 'Where are the miracles?' I will tell you: Lift up your
right hand; lift up your left hand. You tell me if you see any
miracles. What is the miracle?
The day after the concert, Tony Melendez
shared a good part of his life journey with me at the Little Portion
Hermitage Center. The Little Portion community, founded by John
Michael Talbot, sits in a lovely valley amidst the Ozark Mountains
about eight miles outside Eureka Springs. Melendez and I sit across
from each other at a table in the Center's second-floor library.
and a Move to Texas
Melendez starts at the beginning. He
was born in 1962 in Rivas, Nicaragua. His mother, Sarah Maria,
was an elementary teacher in that town. His father, José,
born and reared in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, came
to Rivas to attend Nicaragua's International Academy of Agriculture.
He met Tony's mother while both were students.
"I was born into this world without
arms," Melendez explains, "because of a drug named thalidomide
that was still being tested in the late 50's and early 60's. The
drug was recommended for my mom for what she thought was the flu.
She didn't realize that she was pregnant at the time, nor could
she have known that this drug would have harmful side effects
on the unborn son developing inside her. As a result I was born
without arms and my left foot was clubbed."
About a year after Tony was born, the
family was able to travel to Los Angeles--thanks to his grandfather's
winning a lottery in Nicaragua--in order to have the young child's
clubfoot surgically corrected through a series of operations.
Though life was not easy for them in California, the family ended
up staying permanently.
"So I grew up in L.A.," Melendez
says, "living pretty much like a normal child. I went to
school. On Sundays we went to Mass. I took C.C.D. classes."
As a child, he adds, he learned to do most things with his feet
as if it were the most natural thing to do.
"People think that I have struggled
so hard in life. Yes, the doorknobs are a little bit higher for
someone like me. Yes, I can't reach up to fix a light bulb. But
we don't always have to do those things. Since I never had arms,
it wasn't like I suddenly discovered: 'Oh, my God, they're gone!
How am I going to do things?'
"I simply learned to cope from
day one. I started turning pages and playing with toys with my
toes. It was that way from the beginning of my life. I have never
experienced the struggle of some people who once had something
and then it was taken away." In Melendez's autobiography
there is a photo of him sitting on the floor as a little child
drawing pictures with a crayon between his toes. Another photo
shows him contentedly hammering pegs into holes with a wood mallet
held by his foot.
When did his interest in music start?
"I would say it was from the beginning," he recalls.
"My dad played the guitar. He was a musician--an excellent
guitarist. He used to play in trios, which, as you know, are popular
in Central America and in Mexico. He would go around serenading
"Well, seeing my dad's guitar,
I kept bugging him: 'I want to play! I want to play!'" Melendez
says, feigning a child's pestering voice. "So finally my
dad told me: 'Go wash your feet'--because his guitar was very precious
to him and not something a little kid should touch carelessly.
So eventually he let me mess with it. I can't say, however, that
it was music then. The real music didn't come till I was
16 years old. That's when it started sounding like music. I began
playing at churches and retreats, at school functions and other
Yet, Melendez did not think he was
bringing in enough money to feel he was really contributing to
his family, which always seemed to be struggling. With the help
of a friend, he decided to try singing on a street corner in Laguna
Beach, a quaint art community on a popular stretch of the California
coastline. So one day, as he describes in his book, A Gift
of Hope, with his guitar case open in front of him, he sat
down on a bench, swallowed hard and began playing.
"For about four months,"
Melendez writes, "I sang on that street corner in Laguna
Beach three or four times a week to help earn money to pay our
family's bills. There were exciting moments when people stopped
to tell me how much my singing encouraged them. One man even dropped
in a $100 bill. But most of the time I felt embarrassed to be
"I wondered if this would be my
future: singing for quarters thrown into my open guitar case.
My dad had given up everything to bring me to America when I was
just a baby so that I wouldn't end up begging on the streets of
Nicaragua. Now I felt I was begging with my music on the streets
of Laguna Beach....
"It was at this time that a letter
came out of nowhere asking me to audition to sing for Pope John
Paul II on his visit to America. For seven years my mom had encouraged
me. She never once stopped believing that God was at work in my
life and that God's plan was worth waiting for. But I never dreamed
that during those months of playing and singing on the street
corner that my very next gig would be before the pope himself,
and for tens of millions of people in a television audience that
stretched around the globe."
As Melendez confided to St. Anthony
Messenger, he firmly believes that it was God's hand that
brought him and the pope together that night "when we shared
the kiss on each other's right cheek and the city of Los Angeles
went bananas!...It was a dream come true. I never ever, ever,
ever imagined I would be part of such a dream. Only God could
put me in a spot like that!" And when the pope told Melendez
that he wanted the young musician to "give hope to all people,"
Melendez suddenly saw the direction that his own life should take.
His own God-given mission jumped into sharp focus.
After Melendez became an instant celebrity,
invitations to give concerts poured in from all over. One of the
many Catholic dioceses that sent an invitation was the Diocese
of Dallas, Texas. A single woman there by the name of Lynn Zechman
was working with the diocese as the assistant director for youth
Melendez's Message of Hope
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she
was one of the main contact people for bringing Melendez into
the city for concerts. She helped pick him up at the airport
and take him around. Melendez was popular with the Dallas youth
and was invited back for several years in a row. Melendez and
Zechman got to know each other quite well.
"We were just friends at first;
there were no sparks," said Melendez of this association
with Zechman. "It was not until one of the later visits that
we took a romantic interest in each other." In 1990 the two
got married and they now live in the Dallas area.
"We have a little girl named Marisa,"
Melendez adds, "an adopted little baby from El Salvador.
We have only had her in the house for about 10 months now. So
we are getting to know each other quite well. We miss her a whole
bunch right now," explains Melendez, referring to
his and Lynn's current trip to Arkansas, which is "the first
time that 'Mama' has left Marisa!"
What explains Tony Melendez's amazing
ability to transmit hope and inspiration to his audiences? "I
think it happens," he confides, "because the audience
is seeing a guy with no arms but they are hearing
a guy that is very whole. I mean, they might visually be seeing
someone with no arms but there is a wholeness in my heart.
Other Peak Experience
"I certainly don't want to say
that I am any better than anyone else. I have fallen on my face
many times. I have made many wrong moves. But I know that God
is in my life and fills my emptiness. Whatever is missing God
takes care of."
What does he hope to convey during
his concerts? "There are three things I try to get across,"
says Melendez. "You hear right off, I believe, that God is
very important in my heart. And I won't ever deny that.
"Second is the importance of family--my
life with my family. I often share about my wife or my mother
or my little baby.
"And the third thing is self-worth.
I don't think I need to say a whole lot about that because people
kind of just say: 'Man, he could be hating life right now. But
look what he is doing with his life!' I believe they see that
and say to themselves: 'Well, if he can do that, so can I.'
Does he have a special message for
people with disabilities? "It would be the same as I would
tell anybody," Melendez replies: "Don't give up on yourself.
You must like yourself. If you have a disability, face it. I don't
have arms. Now what? You have to move ahead!
"And I would say the same thing
to any human who is stuck. I don't mean stuck in a wheelchair
or something like that--but maybe just stuck in one's personal
life and unable to move forward. Well, face the problem and move
forward. I wouldn't know what else to say."
Melendez's central message seems clear:
It is love and caring that make us whole human beings. That is
more important than having complete bodies. At the same time,
as his own example shows, it's important to be honest about our
wishes to be physically whole. To deny one's honest longings is
not helpful. Melendez's last song at his Eureka Springs concert
illustrates this: "I Wish I Could Hold You in My Arms."
"In this song," he tells
the audience by way of preface, "I share about my family.
You might say it's not a Christian song, especially when you hear
its words. But I don't live two lives," he explains, "a
Christian life and a secular life. I live life! And I hope
you do too."
Then he begins the song:
"Now when the concert's over at
the ending of my day,
I wish that I could hold you in my
When I see you dancing and your
body starts to sway,
I wish that I could hold you in my
Explaining his sentiments the next
day, Melendez says: "At one time I really thought that I
needed arms, legs, eyes in order to love, or to serve, or to care
for people. I thought I needed those things. And, yes, it is useful
to have hands in order to help someone. But that is not what it
takes to love. To love someone, all you need to do is have the
heart and care."
Melendez admits that his singing for
the pope was without doubt the greatest turning point in his life.
He had another dramatic experience sometime later, however, that
also affected his life profoundly.
"It was a big moment that really
opened my eyes," he recalls. "I was singing one day
in Austin, Texas, in a rec center. There was a young lady there
who had come to the concert. She was just like Helen Keller. She
couldn't hear, speak or see. The young lady had a friend with
her who was interpreting everything I was saying by 'talking'
into her hand (by palm printing--a process of spelling out words
with one's finger). Her friend walked up to me in the middle of
the concert and said: 'My friend wants to hear.'
"She explained the situation to
me. My mouth dropped open. I said, 'How? Does she want to put
her hand on the speaker?' 'No,' her friend said, 'but is it O.K.
if she places her hand on your guitar?'
"Well, for the whole second half
of the concert," recalls Melendez, "she sat on the edge
of the stage facing the audience with her hand resting on my guitar.
I told the audience what was happening. They loved it. The young
lady loved it, too. Whenever I played a slow song, she would sway
slowly. Whenever I would play a fast song, she would start bouncing.
She was with me the whole way!
"The experience was very moving,"
Melendez says with awe in his voice. "Moments like that--which
may never happen again--are the reason I keep going!"
And experiences like Tony Melendez
gives us are the reason the rest of us can keep going. Thanks,
Tony, for helping us understand what being whole really means.
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor
of this publication and editor of Catholic
Update. Father Jack has an M.A. in English literature from
University, Cincinnati, and is author of a new
book that explores his Franciscan journey, Lights: Revelations
of God's Goodness (St. Anthony