Growing up, junior Joanna Torrey knew her great-great-grandfather was someone important — a well known missionary and evangelist whose picture was framed on the piano of her family’s Connecticut home. But to Joanna, R.A. Torrey was always just “this ancestor who did really cool things.”

It wasn’t until she arrived as a freshman at Biola that she came to understand who R.A. Torrey really was: Biola’s first dean and the name connected with the university’s Torrey Honors Institute and the annual Torrey Memorial Bible Conference. As the first Torrey to attend Biola as a student, Joanna admits that it’s a little odd seeing her family’s name all over campus and having to constantly tell people that yes, she is a member of the Torrey line.

It’s a big name to live up to.

“I felt some pressure at first when I came to Biola, learning about all that R.A. Torrey did and feeling like I had to live up to that,” Torrey said. “But last year the Lord really told me, ‘Jo, your identity is not in your ancestry. Your identity is in me.’”

An intercultural studies major and one of the directors of the prayer ministry for the Student Missionary Union, Joanna plans to continue in her family’s strong missions heritage after she graduates. R.A. Torrey’s son, R.A. Torrey II, was a missionary to China, and his son, Joanna’s grandfather (R.A. Torrey III), was a missionary to Korea and founded the Jesus Abbey — a new monastic community of about 50 or so Christians who live, work, eat, pray and worship together in the mountains of South Korea.

photo of Joanna Torrey

Photo by Mike Villa

Joanna’s parents are also serving in South Korea, educating and training South Koreans to eventually go into North Korea and preach the gospel.

As for her own future in missions, Joanna — who spent two years prior to Biola serving with YWAM in the United Kingdom and Albania — has a heart for North Korea, but she’s open to wherever God leads her.

“I just want to help people and tell them Jesus loves them,” she said. “And I’ll do that however God tells me to, whether it’s feeding people or preaching to people, in New York City or a jungle on the other side of the world.”

But for now, Joanna is enjoying being a student at Biola.

In some of her classes, she’s had to read books and sermons by her great-great-grandfather, which helped her get to know him in ways she hadn’t before.

“What I appreciate about him is that when he preaches, he’s to the point and doesn’t beat around the bush,” she said. “He’s all about ‘You need to accept Jesus.’ And I love his emphasis on how the Holy Spirit empowers you to do anything.”

Reading R.A. Torrey’s How to Pray has been especially meaningful as a “full circle” sort of moment for Joanna, thinking about how God answers prayers and blesses us from generation to generation.

“I remember at a Torrey family reunion a couple summers ago, we were at the house in Pennsylvania where R.A. Torrey lived for a time,” she said. “We went up to this little tower room and my mom told us that this was the spot he would come and pray every morning for an hour for his kids and grandkids.”

Thinking about those prayers, and how all these years later she is leading a prayer ministry herself at the very university R.A. Torrey helped shape, Joanna takes a deep breath and considers how God weaves everything together.

“Just being in that room and knowing that I’ve been directly blessed by those prayers that he prayed even before I was born … that really hits me.”