The thousands of people who have broken the law and spent time at Cumberland County jail call him simply “Rev.”

It’s a shorthand that seems misleading given the essential role Rev. Jeff McIlwain serves in the state’s largest jail, bringing compassion and facilitating a spiritual rehabilitation that can lead to changing behavior.

McIlwain is the jail’s pastor who also oversees the work of between 40 and 50 other faith-oriented volunteers. He also mentors people training in clinical pastoral education through local hospitals.

McIlwain does not downplay the crimes people have committed or minimize the harm they have caused to others and themselves, but still he is extremely popular with inmates hungry for spiritual guidance.

“I see Jeff being with inmates in the way God would be with inmates – present, listening, affirming the goodness that is in them, while also speaking the truth,” said Macauley Lord, a volunteer pastor who has worked with McIlwain at the jail for the past year.

“There are some murderers here and some people who sold drugs to kids,” Lord said. “Those things are bad for the world, and yet when I see Jeff with inmates, I see someone who meets them where they are as human beings, even though some have done inhuman things.”

McIlwain is a Christian preacher and that is evident when he leads a bible study, Macauley said. But he is sought after by people of all faiths and those with no particular faith. He is adept at helping people find whatever spiritual resources they have within them.

“He is a very caring person. He just loves human beings…most of the time,” Macauley says with a smile.