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Asheville pastor says gang violence is an ‘epidemic,’ urges leaders to work to prevent it

By Anjali Patel

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    ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (WLOS) — An Asheville pastor with a history of gang involvement himself is urging leaders to make sure kids don’t follow the same path he once took.

Superintendent Ronald Gates, a pastor at Greater Works Church of God in Christ in Asheville, said growing up in Michigan, he was once involved in a gang called Vice Lords. But thanks to the help of his family, he was able to get out before he was in too deep.

“Thank God I had family members and others that kept me from fully getting engulfed in it, involved in it, that would put me behind bars, or in prison, or even dead,” Gates said. “It has its price to it, and most of the time its price is death.”

Because of his past, gang violence is an issue he’s always been wary of here in the mountains.

He warned leaders about it years ago. With Asheville’s close proximity to other big cities in the Carolinas, he was worried gangs would make their way to the mountains.

So, in 2016, he said he participated in a program called GangFree.org, which provided training to help prevent kids from joining gangs in California. Gates came back to Asheville with the idea to start a preventative program here with local government and law enforcement. He says the key is to get ahead of the problem by starting with youth.

“In the third grade to the eighth grade, their brains are so impressionable. It’s pretty much a shaping of a path. So, if we can get them at the third to the eighth grade, we can be able to give them a choice, a direction, a preventative measure, to be able to make a sound decision why not to get involved in gangs,” Gates said. “Let’s start giving them different avenues, different pathways, sharing with them the reality of what is taking place because they don’t know the reality.”

But he says when he brought his idea to the leaders at the time back in 2016, they weren’t convinced gangs were a big problem yet.

Now — with the recent violence, he said he’s starting those conversations again with current leadership.

Asheville police are investigating possible gang involvement in a deadly drive-by shooting Monday night. Officers arrived on scene to find an 18-year-old had been shot multiple times outside of 251 Biltmore Avenue.

“It’s a tragedy to see things like that you know,” Gates said. “I believe we have to take time to say, ‘This is a reality, that it is really happening.'”

He said gang violence is growing here and across the country.

“This is an epidemic and it’s ever-increasing,” he said. “We have to approach it with all hands on deck. It’s taking place.”

But Asheville Vice-Mayor Sheneika Smith says gang violence isn’t the main problem here but that it is, instead, part of a greater issue. She sent News 13 the following statement:

“Gang violence is not ‘the’ problem. It’s subordinate to a greater issue! The root cause of violence in our community is poverty — lack of opportunity, lack of adequate housing, food insecurity, lack of good-paying employment, etc.

I applaud any effort to address the issues that stem from poverty such as gang involvement, but good programs and initiatives fail when the needs of an individual’s home life and community aren’t addressed.”

News 13 also reached out to the Asheville Police Department to find out if it’s considering initiatives like what Gates is proposing.

The APD spokesperson sent the following statement:

“Pastor Gates is an amazing resource in our community and a person that APD has worked with and continues to work with. APD is always seeking opportunities to work with the community to come together collaboratively and address issues facing our residents.”

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