The common theme for people who joined solidarity vigils with Cindy Sheehan was surprise as local activists turned out in large numbers on short notice to back a mother who was encamped outside George W. Bush’s Texas ranch waiting to ask the president why her son had to die in Iraq.

With two days notice or less, hundreds of Triangle peace activists converged on five sites last Wednesday night for vigils protesting the war in Iraq.

Cary peace activist Roger Ehrlich, founder of the peace group Public Assembly, walked with his wife and four children to a vigil on South Academy Street near the Cary Public Library. Ehrlich said he was glad when he saw about 150 people gathered for the vigil.

“There was a really good, diverse crowd,” he says.

With fewer anti-war actions taking place of late, Ehrlich said he asked himself the question, “What took us so long?”

“This was such a gratifying response in the heart of Cary,” he says.

Scott Langley of the Raleigh Catholic Worker had a similar reaction when he showed up at the Boylan Street bridge for the vigil in Raleigh and saw a large crowd that peaked at about 90 people.

“I was impressed,” Langley says. “I was not expecting to see that many people for something that was not widely publicized.”

With quick planning by peace groups throughout the Triangle, including members of Triangle N.C. CodePink, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and N.C. Peace Action, e-mail messages were spread far and wide inviting folks to be part of a national action to support the group of mothers who have used Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch as a staging area to oppose the war that is now in its third year with no end in sight.

A spokesman in Crawford said more than 1,700 vigils were held simultaneously around the nation last Wednesday to support Sheehan and other military families. Sheehan’s son, U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in action in Sadr City on April 4, 2004. Casey Sheehan is among more than 1,800 U.S. soldiers killed since the March 2003 invasion.

Sheehan had to leave Crawford last week after her mother suffered a stroke, but scores of other activists have stayed at the Crawford vigil awaiting Sheehan’s expected return, said Michael Khoo, who was handling media calls in Crawford. Folk singer Joan Baez was in Crawford last Sunday to perform for about 500 protesters camping out near Bush’s ranch.

“It was the final tear for the overflow and you can’t stop running water,” Baez told the crowd. “Cindy’s was the final tear.”

Khoo said Crawford remains jammed with media from throughout the world who are following Sheehan’s story. “It’s a bit of a madhouse here,” Khoo says.

Francis Coyle joined a group of close to 100 people who gathered with candles in front of the Franklin Street Post Office in Chapel Hill for a vigil that was “for the most part very silent.” Coyle said the group pretty much filled the small plaza in front of the post office.

The night’s largest crowd was gathered along Main Street near Durham’s Brightleaf Square. The four corners of Gregson and Main streets were lined with more than 400 activists. Participant Lori Pistor said the “nose count” was 431, but others estimated the crowd at close to 500.

Pistor says she was “very pleased” but not surprised by the large turnout. She said the Durham community is well connected by e-mail and neighborhood groups and there’s a strong anti-war sentiment among many Durham residents.

Pistor said people have been moved by Sheehan’s protest and disappointed with Bush for refusing to meet with her.

“Where’s the compassion?” Pistor says of Bush. “Cindy is giving people a rallying spot and people are looking for ways to respond.”

At Raleigh’s Community United Church of Christ, more than 200 people gathered on the church’s lawn in full view of passing traffic along Wade Avenue. People held candles and signs with messages such as “America Stands with Cindy” and “Bring Our Children Home” as well as a quote attributed to Sheehan: “Before one more mother’s child is lost.”

Community UCC’s pastor, the Rev. Steve Halsted, says the candlelight gathering was not a time for lots of speeches but rather a time for “lamentation, grieving and mourning together” and a time to proclaim “God’s healing peace to the world.”