The line slowly edged out of the small Alexandria church yesterday morning as members of the congregation stepped forward to clutch their minister's hands.
It was a scene like most Sunday mornings at the 800-member Del Ray United Methodist Church except that yesterday it was members of the congregation who were offering reassurances to their pastor.
"Yes, I have suffered enormously these past few days," acknowledged the 53-year-old Rev. Reid W. Digges Jr. as he greeted the members of his church. "But I would rather have friends like you than all the gold in the world," he told them.
Yesterday's 11 a.m. service was a painful one for the minister, but one that he said he insisted on performing rather than appear to shirk because of criminal charges a young Norfolk girl has filed against him. Digges, who has strongly denied the charges, was told yesterday during the worship service that he has his church's unanimous support.
"As Jesus would do, we are putting our arms around him. We love him," announced Betty Seemuller, a church leader. "He told us about the girl and her vindictive family. He said he is innocent and we believe him. Unanimously we told him we are supporting him."
Digges was arrested Sept. 27 and charged with sodomy and contributing to the delinquency of a 17-year-old Norfolk girl who is a member of a church he once served there. Two Norfolk men were also charged with similar offenses, which Norfolk police say allegedly took place over a period of two years at the home of the girl's infirm parents.
In an interview yesterday Digges repeated his belief that the allegations stem from bitterness over his refusal to pay a $180 telephone bill that the girl's family had accumulated.
"When the Norfolk police came up here to tell me about the charges I nearly fainted," Digges said yesterday as he sat with his wife and two daughters in the living room at the church's parsonage.
"I was so shaken I thought I was having a heart attack," the minister recalled. "I suffer from vertigo and I was afraid to drive to the heart doctor's office, so I took a bus to Georgetown University Hospital for tests and then took a cab home." The doctors assured him he had not suffered a heart attack, he said.
Digges, a minister for the past 25 years, said he had gone out of his way to help the girl's family. He said he used to take the girl's ailing father to medical offices and had obtained public assistance money for the girl, who was suffering from tuberculosis.
"I don't know why she is saying these things now," he said. "Maybe it's blackmail, trying to get money from me. This is one of the mysteries of the calling. You prepare yourself for something like this but you never expect it to happen."
Digges, a native of Chevy Chase, said he had planned to become a lawyer, but changed his mind and entered the ministry after completing law school at the University of Iowa. He said he believed that as a minister he could help people "put their lives back together."
After his arrest became public Saturday morning, his two daughters, Mary, a student in Roanoke, and Martha, who lives in New Jersey, returned to Alexandria. The family's plans to attend the mass on the Mall yesterday were canceled and the Digges family remained at home to talk to friends.
"The phone hasn't stopped ringing. If we're not here, people leave notes on the door, I think that's part of the warp and woof of the Del Ray community," Digges siad. He noted the area consisted largely of single-family homes and added that many of the families had long ties to the neighborhood.
Although Digges never mentioned the Norfolk charges during the hour-long service yesterday, the allegations were a constant worry for his wife of 32 years. "I offered to tutor that girl in reading, but she didn't want to learn," Barbara Digges said yesterday. "I am very angry at this."
Digges yesterday declined an offer from C. P. Minnick, head of the Alexandria district of the United Methodist Church, to conduct the service in his place. "I said, this is my church, I have nothing to be ashamed of."
During his two years at Norfolk's Miles Memorial Methodist Church, Digges said he was often at odds with church members because he invited black athletes from a local high school to attend services with the all-white congregation. "There was a lot of animosity towards me for that. My response was, I am supposed to minister to all the people of the community, not just a few of them," he said.