PETERSBURG, VA. -- The Rev. Clyde L. Johnson Sr.'s name appears on the programs of the First Baptist Church on Harrison Street, just as it has since 1968.

His name is also prominently displayed on the sign outside the 230-year-old church. And, during sermons, prayers are still devoted to him. If Johnson himself were not absent, a stranger visiting this city's largest black church might not realize that something is amiss.

Johnson, 53, now sits in a Richmond jail awaiting sentencing next month for his conviction on 15 felony sex crimes, including rape, attempted rape and aggravated sexual battery, against four juvenile girls in his congregation from 1974 to 1986. The jury that convicted Johnson in June recommended a prison sentence of 161 years.

As might be expected, the Johnson case has shaken this economically depressed city of 41,000 just south of Richmond. But what confounds many residents is the vocal part of the community that continues to support the minister, despite the verdict.

Some of Johnson's supporters charge that he was falsely accused, and Johnson himself has maintained his innocence. Other supporters say Johnson, one of the city's prominent ministers and its first black councilman, must be forgiven for what he has done.

"It's happening to us, but we really don't believe that it's true," said Paul C. Bland, a Petersburg lawyer who is chairman of the board of deacons at Loving Union Baptist Church, where Johnson was pastor for 13 years. "And as all the facts come out, we have reasons why it's not true."

While no one is certain how large Johnson's support is, examples of it have been, and still are, readily visible. In October 1986, when word of the investigation into Johnson's activities emerged, Johnson and about 200 supporters marched from First Baptist Church to the Petersburg police station where Johnson turned himself in to authorities.

"I go without my head bowed and the reason why is because I go with a large constituency behind me," Johnson told the group, according to the Petersburg Progress-Index.

More than 30 supporters drove up from Petersburg to Alexandria last week for Johnson's sentencing hearing. Retired Roanoke circuit judge Ernest W. Ballou, who presided over Johnson's trial and delayed sentencing until next month, said he had received about 20 letters concerning the case.

"It is improper for the court to have communication for or against Mr. Johnson," the judge told the packed courtroom.

Since the conviction in June, thousands of dollars have been raised for Johnson's appeal. A Clyde Johnson fund has been set up in the church, and Johnson's two children have raised money for legal fees by selling homemade rolls.

"You have people there that put their money into the church and can't pay their rent," said Melvin Harwell, 53, a First Baptist Church member who led an unsuccessful petition drive to have Johnson removed from the City Council. "Some people worship preachers. They think that preachers are the God. They have the right to believe what they want."

At one rally supporting Johnson, the Rev. Curtis W. Harris, president of the Virginia chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and 15 other ministers announced plans to send a letter to Ballou requesting that they be allowed to serve some of Johnson's jail time before his sentencing.

"If Clyde Johnson committed these crimes, I will be the first to say he has done wrong, but I will not abandon him," the Rev. Wesley McLaughlin, pastor of the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, said at the rally. "If I abandon my brother, then there is no hope for me."

Another Johnson supporter, the Rev. Kenneth Arrington of the Union Fellowship, said, "The bottom line is that all of us, every person on earth, has some skeletons in his closets. That's not our job to judge. It's the Lord's job."

Many residents and city officials cheered when Johnson announced his resignation from the council and two Baptist churches earlier this month. Before the announcement, they sought to have him removed from the council and members of both churches voted to end his pastorship.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Cooley Jr., one of the prosecutors in the case, said the Johnson affair has motivated many black residents of the 6th Ward to become involved in politics for the first time since Johnson became a council member in 1973. "He didn't have any input from anybody in his ward," Cooley said. "He soloed."

Said Bland: "I don't think the political power of blacks in this city will change any. The case has just stirred up a lot of people."

During the Johnson trial, city politics in Petersburg took on a circus-like atmosphere, city officials said. "It did not make for a relaxed atmosphere at council meetings," council member Garland Bigley said.

Residents here say the city's religious community has suffered the most. "In some churches, ministers supported the move to help Reverend Johnson," Harris said. "Other ministers thought they should stay as far away from it as they could."

"You had friends, families, relatives, all taking different sides," said Calvin Miller, a professor of political science at Virginia State University in Petersburg, who followed the case. "I think it has been a real traumatic experience . . . . For a town this small, it was overbearing."

Attendance at First Baptist Church has dropped since details of the case emerged. "When you used to go to that church, if you didn't get there by 10:30 a.m., you wouldn't get a seat," said Harwell, a church member since 1939. "Now, you can sit anywhere you want."

Many in Petersburg say the case has brought shame to their city, and they are anxious to put the Johnson case behind them and move on. "Whenever anybody mentions Petersburg, this is what they have on their mind," Bland said.

"I would say that you can't help but learn something" from the Johnson case, Bland said. "Out of every adversity comes something positive. Sometimes we don't know what those positive things are until a few years down the road.

"I think that as time goes on, there will be a healing process," he said. "I'm optimistic things will get better."