Armless guitarist strums message of hope

By George P. Matysek Jr.

Tony Melendez calls it the kiss that changed his life.

The armless musician had just finished singing a song and playing his guitar with his feet for Pope John Paul II in Los Angeles when the white-robed pontiff leaped from a four-foot platform and rushed toward him.

Gently resting both hands on Mr. Melendez’s bowed head, the pope kissed the then 25-year-old youth on the forehead.

“Tony, Tony,” the pope called out in a Slavic baritone. “You are truly a courageous young man. My wish for you is to bring hope to all the people.”

Tony Melendez performs at St. Andrew by the Bay, Annapolis, Jan 19. (Owen Sweeney III/CR Staff)

Mr. Melendez took the commission to heart. Ever since that memorable encounter nearly 20 years ago, the guitarist has traveled to every state in the union and 33 countries telling young and old alike to cherish the gifts they have been given and value all human life.

Mr. Melendez was in the Archdiocese of Baltimore last week delivering his message of hope during concerts at Towson Catholic High School Jan. 18 and St. Andrew by the Bay in Annapolis Jan. 19. He also participated in the Jan. 23 March for Life in Washington.

Seated on stage in front of a capacity crowd of several hundred at St. Andrew, the 44-year-old musician had his audience members clapping, singing along and waving their blue-lit cell phones in the air in time to songs that included “La Bamba,” “Reach out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” “Hail Mary” and “Never Be the Same.”

Some parishioners wiped away tears as they watched Mr. Melendez maneuver his left foot up and down the arm of his guitar while he plucked the strings of the instrument with the stubby brown toes of his right foot.

In an interview with The Catholic Review before the concert, Mr. Melendez said he is amazed at the way his performances touch others.

“I don’t feel like I’m doing much,” said Mr. Melendez, who wanted to become a priest but couldn’t because he doesn’t have an index finger and thumb – necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist.

“I sing very simple songs,” he said. “But they have a message that goes straight to the heart.”

The performer recalled how one man approached him after a concert and gave him $1. It was one of the dollars the man had been giving to Alcoholics Anonymous every time he relapsed.

“He said he gave it to me because it was the first time he didn’t have to take a drink anymore,” Mr. Melendez recalled.

Born in Nicaragua with no arms, Mr. Melendez was a “thalidomide baby,” a child born with defects caused by a drug prescribed for morning sickness. He came to the United States to be fitted with artificial arms, which he wore until he was 10.

“I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “I could use my feet so much more.”

As a teen, Mr. Melendez began playing the guitar and harmonica with the encouragement of his father after first experimenting with a pushbutton organ.

“I really had a gift of hearing a song and being able to play it,” said Mr. Melendez, whose acoustic guitar is specially adapted so he can play in a variety of keys.

Jose Melendez, Mr. Melendez’s brother who assists with concerts, said his sibling stands as a reminder that all life is sacred.

“He embodies what it really is to be whole and he does it without arms and hands,” Jose Melendez said to the audience at St. Andrew.

Tony Melendez urged everyone to pray for those considering abortion and he thanked those attending the concert for supporting the prolife cause.

“You are hope to me,” he said.

Proceeds from the St. Andrew concert, which was sponsored by the parish’s respect life committee, were used to benefit Hispanic disabled children through the Hispanic outreach of The Arc of Anne Arundel County. 

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