ROCHESTER — As high school seniors from across the Diocese of Rochester filtered into Sacred Heart Cathedral May 20 for the first-ever Senior Scene gathering, a sound check was taking place. A man in a crimson-red shirt, light blue jeans, and no socks or shoes could be seen strumming a guitar — using only his feet.
“Here I am armless, I am unarmed,” Tony Melendez said with a chuckle.
Melendez, a musician and inspirational speaker, was born without arms in 1962. According to a biography on his Web site — www.tonymelendez.com — Melendez’s mother took the prescription drug thalidomide while she was pregnant with him, which caused the birth defect.
The native of Nicaragua moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 1 year old, and there he was fitted with prosthetic arms. He wore the prosthetics until he was 10, when he decided that he could use his feet more, according to his biography.
Melendez’s interest in music was sparked when he started “playing around with a push-button organ,” according to his Web site. From there, he moved on to the guitar and harmonica and, while in high school, began to write music.
It was also during his high-school career that Melendez felt a call to the priestly vocation. According to his biography, he wrote the Vatican in his junior year and again the following year, asking for permission to become a priest. Both requests were denied, he said, because a priest needs to have a thumb and forefinger on each hand in order to administer Communion. Melendez instead began to immerse himself in his music, playing at weddings, retreats and during Masses.
In 1987, Melendez was chosen to play for Pope John Paul II during his visit to Los Angeles. The pope was so moved by Melendez that he embraced and kissed the musician after his performance.
“I never thought a kiss would change my life,” Melendez said in an interview after his Senior Scene concert.
The day after he played for the pope, Melendez said his phone began ringing off the hook with invitations to perform nationally and internationally.
“I went from singing at Sunday Mass, weddings, retreats and local concerts to singing full-blown concerts internationally, virtually overnight,” he said. “I began recording an album and writing my autobiography within that same year. Amazing opportunities came my way.”
The media coverage of Melendez was so intense that he decided to write an autobiography, A Gift of Hope.
“After playing for the pope, people wanted to hear my story,” he said.
Michael Theisen, diocesan director of youth ministry, thought diocesan youths should hear Melendez’s story as well.
Theisen first heard Melendez perform during a youth convention he attended in the 1990s, then again in 2003 at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Houston. He said the youths he was with in Houston were greatly impacted by Melendez’s story and musical talent, and he thought it was time a new generation of young people had the opportunity to see him. That’s why Theisen asked Melendez to perform at Senior Scene.
“He has a powerful story to tell,” said Theisen, who called Melendez a wonderful keynote speaker.
While he was in Rochester, Melendez also performed a fundraising concert to benefit 17 youths from the parishes of Mt. Carmel and Holy Redeemer/St. Francis Xavier who will attend the 2005 NCYC, which will be held in Atlanta. Yolanda Ortiz, Mt. Carmel’s religious-formation coordinator, said since Melendez was already going to be in the area, the parishes decided to ask him to perform.
When Melendez performs, he uses his feet the same way that most people would use their hands. To get the audience at Senior Scene into his music, he began clapping by hitting his feet together, and everyone immediately imitated with their hands.
The challenges of having no arms have not kept Melendez from leading a normal life, he said. Along with a successful career, he also has been married to his wife, Lynn, for 15 years and has two children.
As Melendez was concluding his concert, he offered his listeners a piece of advice.
“Use what you have,” he said. “I do it with a foot, so don’t tell me you can’t help make a difference when you have hands. You need to use what you have.”