by Joe Bollig
KELLY — He once was lost, but then was found.
Organizers of the annual Kelly Youth Rally had been trying to get Tony Melendez to appear at their event for four years. The day of the rally, however, it looked like he was going to be a no-show.
“We’ve been praying hard to get Tony Melendez,” said Father Arul Carasala, as he introduced Melendez from the stage. “He was driving here, and he lost his way. He almost ended up in Nebraska.”
“I did drive to Nebraska,” retorted Melendez.
Melendez discovered that wireless Internet drops off in most of the bucolic Nemaha-Marshall Pastoral Region. He, his family, and his Toe Jam Band were lost indeed. Finding the place where he was supposed to perform — an anony- mous patch of pasture — would take some amazing grace.
Fortunately, the searchers sent out by rally organizers found him and brought him to the rally site, located in a pasture near Kelly.
“All of a sudden, we saw a black truck pass us,” said Melendez. “I said, ‘Guys, they drive fast here.’ He was our guide. I don’t know if I could have ever found [this place otherwise].”
Melendez, who was born without arms, gained fame while playing the guitar with his feet for Pope John Paul II in 1987. Since then, he has travelled to many events as a performer and motiva- tional speaker.
For the greater part of the event, Me- lendez was practically a one-man show, as he played songs both sacred and secular. In between numbers, he talked about God, faith, hope, and overcoming adversity.
This year, the 13th annual rally at- tracted more than 430 junior high and high school youths from 17 parishes in the Nemaha-Marshall Pastoral Region. It concluded with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. The theme of this year’s rally, “Jammin’ with Jesus,” was inspired by Melendez and his Toe Jam Band.
Melendez was not content to merely entertain the teens. His style was par- ticipatory and, at various times, he had them giving each other high-fives and hugs.
“Do what I sing,” he said at one point. “You are my hands. Let’s see how well my hands help me.”
So he asked them to untie a shoe (not necessarily their own), reach out and touch someone’s shoulder, and hug someone four rows in front or behind them.
At one point he stopped for a ques- tion-and-answer period, flipped and caught a pencil with his right foot, and even caught a frisbee with his mouth, like a dog. He could “throw” it, too — with his mouth — pretty far.
There were a lot of other silly things.
But there were a lot of serious things as well.
“I played for Pope John Paul II,” said Melendez. “He jumped off the stage — it wasn’t as high as this one — and he came over and kissed me. He somehow put the word ‘hope’ on my forehead.”
“Somehow, people became inspired by a guy with no arms playing the gui- tar with his toes,” he continued. “It sent me around the world. If Tony Melendez can string a guitar with his toes and hold a pick with his toes, maybe you can do more. Say you’ll try. Maybe one day you will. I pray for that in a big, big, way.”
Melendez has written an autobiog- raphy, titled fittingly enough, “A Gift of Hope: The Tony Melendez Story.” He shared a little of what it is like to grow up disabled and then to overcome his limitations.
“As a little kid, my father used to say, ‘You can do it,’” said Melendez. “I was seven or eight — maybe younger — when I knew I could do things with my foot that some people couldn’t do with their hands. I learned how to tie a knot, string a guitar, and drive a car.”
He has never been angry with God because of his disability.
“I’ve been asked that several times,” said Melendez. “You know, I could never be angry with God. The reason I have no arms is because a medicine was given to my mother when she was pregnant. I was born in Nicaragua. In the United States, they have more [drug] controls, but in Nicaragua they just handed them out.”
“I can’t blame God for something God didn’t do,” he continued. “I’d love to hold my son, and wipe my own face. But [my disability] is the reality. You, as a person, have got to be strong. You might say, ‘Oh, I can’t,’ but you can — for your own sake and for others. You are very much an example of love.”