Words and phrases such as ‘challenged’, ‘differently abled’, ‘disability’, ‘special needs’, etc., took on a new perspective for me recently as I viewed a documentary on EWTN.
It featured Tony Melendez, husband and father of two children, musician, ambassador for Christ and the bringer of hope to youth and adults alike across the USA and approximately 40 other foreign countries.
Let us begin where Tony Melendez began. Born in Nicaragua, Tony was a victim of the drug Thalidomide, which his mother used during her pregnancy with Tony to combat morning sickness. As a result, Tony was born without arms.
The family came to Los Angeles where Tony was fitted with artificial arms which he wore until the age of ten. Finding the arms to be restrictive he discarded them, honing his skills of using his feet instead.
Though a cradle Catholic, he fell away from the Church in his early teenage years, but encouraged by his brother, he resumed Mass attendance and became an active Catholic in high school.
He learned to play the guitar with his feet and began to compose gospel songs. Soon he was playing and singing for up to five Masses on any given Sunday and at other related Church events.
At one point, Tony considered the priesthood but for obvious reasons this did not work out. However, what he considers the turning point of his life was performing for Pope John Paul II, when he visited USA in 1987.
Moved by the performance, the Pope came down from where he sat and embraced Tony, kissing him on the cheek. The Holy Father described Tony as a courageous young man and encouraged him to continue giving hope to the youth.
Tony described his success in these words, “Somewhere between my feet and these guitar strings, God intervenes.”
Tony eventually met and fell in love with Lynn and this love resulted in their marriage. Footage of their wedding ceremony touched me deeply as I viewed him placing the ring on Lynn’s finger and then lighting the Unity candle, holding the taper between his teeth to take his light from the Paschal Candle.
Their love blossomed and they have been blessed with two beautiful children, daughter, Marisa and son, Andreas. It was amazing to view Tony’s interaction with his children, carrying them on his back because he has no arms.
Travelling far and wide using his skills and talents to evangelise, his ministry caters to all ages, abilities and faiths. His wife Lynn says that Tony was called by God to do what he does, since his ministry gives hope to others.
Although known and loved internationally, Tony and his family have settled in the small town of Branson, Missouri, which has a population of approximately 6,000.
There they live with humility, enjoying the love and friendship of the citizens there. The community has been described as close knit and the glitz of Tony’s ministry is not allowed to invade the peace which exists there.
I thought of our own country and those who are labelled ‘disabled’ because of physical and neurological issues. A sad lack of facilities, programmes and trained personnel in many instances, result in many of these our brothers and sisters unable to receive education, develop skills and talents, or even integrate into society.
Even parents and family members of these special-needs individuals are sometimes at a loss as to the way forward for their charges. While Tony Melendez’s story is unique, the hope is that someday, our challenged citizens would see a brighter day in terms of more being done for them.
We continue to hope and pray.