When the photographer Holly Marie Cato was a small child, she would lay newspaper on the floor on Saturday nights and polish her family’s church shoes until the black leather shone for the morning church service. “Now we wear jeans, hoodies and Nikes,” she says. “Most of us carry the Bible in an app on our phone.”

Times have changed, but some things in Black British the churches remain the same. For generations, they have been places of gathering, community and respite – serving as youth clubs, food banks, hot meal kitchens, nurseries and sources of emergency income support all rolled into one.

In Cato’s first solo show Heavy is the coatcurrently on display at the Leica Gallery in London, it documents a transitional period in the life of one such church – the Pentecostal Mission Church in Leytonstone, east londonwhere his great-uncle Herbert Cato was bishop until recently.

Cato followed his great-uncle with his camera as he hung up his robes in anticipation of the retreat, photographing his congregation in their most intimate – and joyful – moments of worship and praise.

“There’s a call and response that only happens with exuberance in black churches,” Cato says. “The pastor preaches and the church makes constant sounds and cries of agreement. You don’t come and sit passively, you participate.”

Black churches in the UK were “never meant to be separated”, says Cato. But when Caribbean people heeded the call to rebuild Britain after World War II, they were met with hostility on the streets and in churches, forcing them to create their own spaces of worship. It’s a part of the Gale history – and wider British history – who received little attention and appreciation until now.

“Biblically, the church is not described as a building, it’s a collection of people,” Cato says, “so for me, those people who make ‘church,’ the physical extension of their love has been the backbone of communities for years and should be recognized for their contribution.”

Discover the photos of Heavy is the coat below.

Bishop Herbert Cato in robes

Bishop Herbert Cato. Photo: Holly-Marie Cato, courtesy of the photographer and Leica Gallery

Bishop Herbert Cato close-up of robes

Photo: Holly-Marie Cato, courtesy of the photographer and Leica Gallery

A close up of the Bible

Photo: Holly-Marie Cato, courtesy of the photographer and Leica Gallery

Bishop Herbert Cato smiling and laughing

Photo: Holly-Marie Cato, courtesy of the photographer and Leica Gallery

A woman to pray to

Photo: Holly-Marie Cato, courtesy of the photographer and Leica Gallery

Close-up of Bishop Herbert Cato

Photo: Holly-Marie Cato, courtesy of the photographer and Leica Gallery

Heavy Is the Mantle is on the Leica Gallery in London until 1 November 2022.

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