‘I’m just the instrument’: Omaha musician praises God for gift of song

It was 1999 and Jim Nailon was sitting next to his mother’s hospice bed, playing guitar, singing one of her favorite hymns, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and trying not to cry.
His voice drifted out into the nursing home hallway. Soon the door to her room was gently pushed open and a group of residents gathered around to listen. 
It was in that moment, Nailon said, that he recognized his musical talent was truly a gift from God.
“I was simply playing some of the songs we sang together when I became aware that those songs were really prayers,” said Nailon, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Omaha who often prays, plays and sings in concerts at parishes and schools, and at the Holy Family Shrine near Gretna.
Nailon wasn’t always Catholic. Adopted at birth, he was raised in a Southern Baptist church in Longview, Wash. He converted to Catholicism the year after his mother died because he long admired his wife Gina’s deep connection to her faith and he wanted to join her in worship.
Growing up, Nailon said, music was an integral part of the Nailon family.
“We spent many Sunday afternoons with my cousins playing music and singing,” he recalled. “My dad would play the harmonica, my cousins played guitars and I did my best to follow along on my plastic toy guitar.”
His grandmother, Edith Rowlands, a choir director at the local Methodist church in Longview, recognized Nailon’s vocal talent, and told his mother when Jim was 3 years old, “You know you got a little true tone there.”
In 2006, Nailon moved to Omaha with his wife so she could pursue her career in nursing science research. The couple joined St. Thomas More Parish, where Nailon plays and sings at Mass. He also taught Spanish in the parish school for 11 years until retiring in May. And he led the school choir and “Angel of God” after-school program.
Before arriving in Omaha, Nailon, 66, worked as a data analyst for a large aluminum company in Washington state. 
In addition to Masses at St. Thomas More, he occasionally plays at Holy Cross Parish. And he provides free guitar arrangements for psalms and hymns through his website,
Father Carl Salanitro, pastor of Holy Cross, said, “Jim doesn’t just sing the psalm, he prays the psalm through his music and voice.”
Nailon just smiles when he hears comments like that. He says God gave him the talent as one way for the Lord to manifest himself in everyone.
“I’m just the instrument,” Nailon said.
Music allows him to serve God and others, he said. It also gives him the greatest joy.
“I connect with God in music,” he said.
That’s evident in the songs he writes, his friends say, which reflect an outpouring of love for his creator.
Beatrice Delgado, also a member of St. Thomas More, said she feels a sense of awe at the depth of emotion Nailon expresses in his music when she hears him play at Mass.
“It is such beautiful music, so uplifting at times it can make me cry,” she said.
One moment in particular stands out for Delgado. Her mother, Elvira, was visiting one summer from Mexico and Nailon sang a hymn in Spanish at Mass.
“My mother’s eyes lit up,” Delgado said. “We were all so happy, listening to his guitar and hearing him sing. It reminded us of attending Mass in Mexico.”
In tribute to God, Nailon said, he has recorded three CDs – “Praying the Guitar,” “Arms Open Wide,” and “Little Baby in the Hay.” 
Now that he is retired, he can focus solely on his music ministry.
Among his projects: He hopes to bring his gift of music to residents of nursing homes in Omaha, just as he did for his mother.
“Retirement is a wonderful gift. I believe God wants my main focus to be music, and I am open to whatever his desire is for me,” he said.
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