By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT – When Tony Melendez sat down to begin his concert May 12 at Sacred Heart Cathedral, he said he should have arranged to do a song with Father Rich Adam and Father Ross Epping. The two priests of the Diocese of Davenport performed before the concert.
Fr. Adam, the cathedral’s pastor, played the piano and Fr. Epping, parochial vicar at St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, sang. Tony Kingsley accompanied them on drums. The trio warmed up the crowd for Melendez, an armless musician who plays the guitar with his feet.
Throughout the concert, Melendez shared stories in English and Spanish. He encouraged his audience to join him in singing songs projected on a screen that also showed images of him and his family and of St. John Paul II. “He would change my life,” Melendez said.
At a performance in Los Angeles in 1987, Melendez performed for Pope John Paul II who was so moved that he jumped off a stage to give the singer a kiss on his cheek. Since that time, Melendez said his faith has become stronger. He has learned about and seen a Catholic Church “that is huge.”
Melendez was born in Nicaragua without arms, a condition caused by Thalidomide, a drug prescribed to pregnant women to treat nausea. Later, the drug was discovered to cause birth defects. He said his mother was in shock when he was born. His grandmother told his mom that he was not going to die. He needed her.
The family moved to the United States to see what could be done for him. Melendez was fitted with artificial arms, but didn’t feel comfortable with them. “They wanted to help their little boy and I thank them for what they have done for me.”
He said that his dad gave him a guitar — “my amigo,” he laughed. His dad died at a young age due to alcoholism. Melendez recalled his dad telling him that he was not going to help him; that he needed to do things himself. “That hurt me a lot. But later I realized I needed that. I needed to do things myself.”
His mom has always been there for him. “A love of a mom is precious. She loved me so much.”
He recalled a time when someone visited the family home when he was young. The visitor asked who was singing in the other room. “Tony,” his mom said. Who is playing the guitar? “Tony,” she said. How can that be, the visitor remarked.
Melendez joked that when he first thought about singing for others, the only song he knew was “La Bamba.” He played the song. Then he played “This Little Light of Mine” and asked the crowd to join in. “Get a little more excited,” he urged the crowd.
His audience knew most of the songs he asked them to sing. He also performed songs he wrote, and other songs. He asked attendees to hug their moms if they were in attendance. Then he had everyone stand up and shake the hand of the person next to them.
He recalled receiving a phone call from someone in Poland. “I don’t speak Polish at all. My Spanish didn’t help. Neither did my English.” Eventually he learned that the caller wanted him to write a song on one of the Ten Commandments. Melendez chose to write a song on the fourth commandment: honor your father and mother. He performed the song at World Youth Day in Poland in 2016.
He cherishes family — his parents, siblings, wife and children. “A family needs to work together. Not just to eat and work but to love Christ. That is why we are alive.” God’s inspiration has sent Melendez throughout the world to sing and bring his ministry to others. “But it has taken me away from my family.”
After the concert, Melendez signed books and compact discs and posed for photos with anyone who asked. The evening “was moving,” said Anahi Ceniceros of Muscatine. “We had not heard Tony before. It was wonderful,” said Leopoldo Rosario, who attended with his family. “We loved it.”
Miguel Moreno, coordinator of Multicultural Ministry for the Diocese of Davenport, organized the event with the help of the Anglo, Vietnamese and Hispanic communities. “They all promoted the concert,” he said. Several parishes bought tickets to sell to parishioners.
Moreno said the event helped the various communities in the diocese to come together and also promoted the office of Multicultural Ministry so that people could learn more about the office’s mission. “The event itself was a nice way to recognize all of our lives and thank our mothers (the day before Mother’s Day).”
He was pleased with the turnout of around 500 people from different cultures and that many came together as a family.