By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Tony Melendez, a singer and guitarist born without arms, gave a rousing and passionate performance at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City March 6.
“He was very inspiring, moving and empowering, mostly because sometimes we forget what we have and what we can do,” said Bertha Martin, a member of St Patrick Parish in Iowa City. She was one of about 400 people who attended the bilingual concert. Additionally, Melendez performed at St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa March 7, filling the church to near-capacity with a crowd of about 375 people.
In his concert “Song of Hope,” Melendez sang a mixture of popular Christian tunes, original songs and Catholic prayers with his baritone voice. He played guitar with his feet — sometimes with a guitar pick, other times plucking the strings with his toes. His tempos ranged from slow and contemplative — like his musical rendition of the Hail Mary – to quick and upbeat, as in his fast-paced cover of “Trading my Sorrows.”
Melendez performed on a platform with the guitar laying strings up in front of him. This gave the audience full view of his feet as he played. Colorful spotlights and Powerpoint slides — often with sing-along lyrics — supplemented his performance.
In one original song, “I’m gonna lift my feet up high,” he waved his foot in the air and encouraged everyone to wave their arms. “If I can do it, so can you! Even if you’re feeling blue,” he sang.
Between songs, he told stories about his life and encouraged the audience members to see their strengths and to not dwell on weaknesses. He shared photographs and video of his life through Powerpoint slides, explaining that his disability has not stopped him from pursing his musical dream, getting married and raising a family.
“In God’s eyes, I am complete,” he told the Iowa City crowd. “If Tony Melendez, who has no arms, can play guitar, don’t tell me you can’t do something!”
He explained to the audience why he chose to play guitar — an instrument which generally requires quick and flexible fingers. “Because my dad had one lying around!” he said. “Who would have thought these fat little things could play? (My feet) are my hands!”
He shared his insight on how to remain optimistic despite shortcomings. He said it would be easy to look in the mirror and dwell on his lack of arms, but he chooses not to. “I keep myself occupied with good things. That’s Tony Melendez’s secret! Another secret? God! Can I get an ‘Amen’?”
He encouraged everyone to use their talents to evangelize. “We leave (God) at the door of the church. He demands for us to take him out of the church. Pope Francis is telling us to wake up and do this.”
Melendez’s eyes brimmed with tears as he expressed gratitude to Pope John Paul II, who jumpstarted the musician’s career “with a kiss” after a 1987 performance.
The Holy Father later invited him to play at the Vatican. After the pope’s passing, Melendez performed an original memorial song at the 2005 Billboard Latin Music Awards, in which he grieved alongside stars like Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Melendez has since played for St. John Paul II’s successors.
As soon as Melendez played his last note, the audience stood up and applauded. After the concert, Melendez posed for pictures with fans and signed autographs with his feet.
Santos Lopez, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City, took pictures of Melendez’s guitar after the concert. When asked what he liked most about the performance, he responded enthusiastically. “Everything!”
Edmundo Cavazos of Moline, Ill., embraced the musician after the concert. “The man is full of Christ,” he told The Catholic Messenger. “He moves you to tears.”
Sister Kathleen Henneberry, CHM, attended the concert with other Sisters of Humility from Davenport. She was inspired by his message. “He wants people to have strong hope and strong faith and never to say, ‘I can’t.’”
(These concerts were sponsored by the Diocese of Davenport Office of Multicultural Ministry.)