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Tony Melendez:
Strumming Chords of Hope

Nine years ago, a young Latino musician, born without arms, played guitar with his feet and sang for Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father told him: "You are giving hope to all of us!" Tony Melendez is still playing wonderful songs of hope.

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

(Above) Pope John Paul II embraces Melendez in 1987.

The Phone Never Stopped Ringing
From Nicaragua to Los Angeles
Tony Melendez's Message of Hope
The Performances Go On
Marriage and a Move to Texas
One Other Peak Experience

One 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.

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 moment!"

The Phone Never Stopped Ringing

"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.

"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 1-817-321-3188).

The Performances Go On

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.

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 Dana.

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 grace!

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?

"It's you!"

From Nicaragua to Los Angeles

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.

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 the ladies.

"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 special occasions."

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 singing there.

"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.

Marriage and a Move to Texas

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 ministry.

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!"

Tony Melendez's Message of Hope

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.

"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 arms.
When I see you dancing and your body starts to sway,
I wish that I could hold you in my arms...."

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."

One Other Peak Experience

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 Xavier University, Cincinnati, and is author of a new book that explores his Franciscan journey, Lights: Revelations of God's Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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