ROCHESTER — Shortly after Tony Mel√©ndez began his concert for the 230 high-school students gathered May 19 at Sacred Heart Cathedral, he encouraged them to run across the aisles and hug each other.
“Even if you don’t know them, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ,” said Mel√©ndez, a native of Nicaragua who was born without arms. “Our good Lord needs you. Say yes to God.”
Mel√©ndez, who now lives in Branson, Mo., with his wife and two children, told the students that his whole life changed when he answered God’s call to reach out to people through his music. He plays the guitar with his feet and, with a soulful voice, sings songs of praise. During many of his songs, the students raised their hands, sang, clapped and danced along.
His concert was part of the second-annual Senior Scene program, which is designed to help high-school seniors from across the Diocese of Rochester realize how their gifts and talents can be used to serve their faith, said Carol Dady, coordinator of priesthood vocation and awareness.
“Tony is such a perfect example of that,” said Dady, who added that students were so impressed by Mel√©ndez last year that the diocese decided to ask him to return for this year’s program. “It’s amazing to watch him.”
Mel√©ndez told the students he has now traveled to 33 countries, all because he said yes to God’s call when he was a teenager. His father, although an alcoholic, helped him become independent by always challenging him to do things on his own. He was the person who placed a guitar on the floor in front of him and dared him to play.
“I never dreamed I’d be doing what I’m doing,” added Mel√©ndez. “God said … ‘I need you.’ I never saw him. I never heard him. I just felt his love.”
So he urged the students to listen to what God has planned for their lives.
“We need you,” Mel√©ndez said. “We need you big time.”
Mel√©ndez also performed at Corpus Christ Church on May 19 for about 150 people. Between songs, he was peppered with questions about what other jobs he held and what other instruments he plays. Mel√©ndez said he has played organ and harmonica but sticks mostly to guitar and songwriting.
In 1987, he experienced a life-altering moment when Pope John Paul II kissed him after a performance during a papal visit to Los Angeles. After leaving Nicaragua, his family had moved to California to seek out medical treatment for Mel√©ndez, who was born without arms as a result of his mother’s use of the medication thalidomide during pregnancy. Mel√©ndez went on to record his first album of contemporary Christian songs in 1989.
During the Sacred Heart program, Mel√©ndez said he knows the students will be pulled in many different directions as they graduate and move on to the next phases of their lives. In moments of doubt or uncertainty, he asked them to be silent so they can hear God speaking to their hearts.
“We all fail each and every day,” he said. “One way to follow in God’s life is to get up every day and ask, ‘Let me be an example.’ “
Rachel Howard, 17, a senior from Tioga Central Schools, said she felt grateful for the opportunity to see Mel√©ndez and hear his story.
“It just inspired me to say yes to God and be able to make a difference,” said Rachel, who plans to attend Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., in the fall.
Mayra Casta√±eda, 17, of Brockport High School said Mel√©ndez helped the students understand that God helps them in so many ways, and all they need to do is talk to him and ask.
“I haven’t seen anything like it in my life,” said Mayra about Mel√©ndez’s performance. “He inspires others. He shows others that they can do anything.”
Bishop Matthew H. Clark asked the students at Senior Scene always to share their talents and strengths with others and to try to make a difference in the lives of their communities, wherever life takes them.