PROVIDENCE — Musician Tony Melendez’s life has never been the same since the day he performed in person for St. Pope John Paul II.
“To be able to share with a saint, a moment like that, I mean, it’s opened many, many doors. I’ve traveled all over the world because of that moment,” said Melendez, 56, who for more than 30 years has played his guitar and sung for audiences in all 50 states and more than 44 countries.
Thanks to the efforts of the Diocese of Providence’s Catholic Youth Ministry, Melendez will bring his musical talents to Rhode Island with two performances in November.
On Nov. 8, he will perform for a youth night at Holy Apostles Church in Cranston from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The following evening, also from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., he will perform for families at the Bishop McVinney Auditorium.
“It’s very beautiful in Rhode Island at that time of year. I can’t wait to see the leaves changing colors,” Melendez said.
His musical talent is all the more remarkable given that Melendez plays the guitar with his toes. He was born with a clubbed foot and without any arms due to a drug, Thalidomide, his mother was prescribed for morning sickness while she was pregnant with him.
But Melendez, who was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Los Angeles, never let his disabilities stop him from having a rewarding life. A married father of two grown children, Melendez enjoys working with computer graphics and fishing in the Ozarks when he’s not on the road performing for youth, family and church audiences.
“I don’t know anything different. I’ve never had arms, so I’ve never lost them,” Melendez said in a recent telephone interview with the Rhode Island Catholic.
“To me, in my eyes, it’s normal, so I’ve just kind of lived that way,” Melendez said. “I lived in the world without arms, so I had to figure out a way to do it.”
When he was a one-year-old infant, Melendez’s family immigrated to the United States so he could have corrective surgery on his left foot that would enable him to walk. He grew up in a home with a mother who protected and cared for him, but also with a father who encouraged and pushed his son to do things on his own.
Melendez learned to do almost everything with his feet. When he was 16, he taught himself to play the guitar with his toes.
“It’s real music. I’m able to strum soft melodies and everything,” said Melendez, who performs slow and upbeat secular and Christian music, as well as original songs that he has composed.
On Sept. 15, 1987, when he was 25, Melendez was invited by the youth of Los Angeles to be their “gift” to St. Pope John Paul II, who was then visiting the United States. A youth who introduced Melendez told the pontiff that their gift represented courage and family support.
“I was terrified,” said Melendez, who despite his nerves that day, brought the crowd to its feet, and prompted John Paul II to rise from his chair and give Melendez a kiss on the cheek.
“Tony, you are truly a courageous young man. You are giving hope to all of us. My wish to you is to continue giving this hope to all the people,” the late pontiff said.
That is a message that Melendez has tried to convey ever since.
“More than anything, I hope I’m motivating the audience, but the word hope is what comes to my heart,” Melendez said. “To give a little hope to their lives, through some songs, through some words and through our time together.”
Melendez said he could never have expected where life would take him after his moment with John Paul II.
“Was I ready that day for what was coming? No,” Melendez said. “I was 25 years old and still searching for what career, what work, what to do. It opened up this ministry where I’m able to travel and sing, from youth groups to conferences to conventions. Even the corporate world is calling me now so I’m doing some corporate presentations and motivational speaking.”
Melendez is on the road about 15 to 20 days a month. He and his wife of 28 years, Lynn, live in Missouri. They have two children, ages 21 and 24, in whom they instilled the Catholic faith.
“The faith was very important to the whole family, even to this day,” said Melendez, who added that he “can get lost hours just fishing” in his 17-foot boat back home in Missouri.
“I love to enjoy life,” Melendez said. “I don’t want to sit still and wallow in, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’ That’s not Tony Melendez. Tony Melendez is, ‘Let’s figure out a way to it done.’”